My Solo Story: Spike Gillespie
[rough intro — to be rewritten]
Spike Gillespie, 54, is a journalist, blogger, author, writing teacher, wedding & funeral officiant, rancher, venue owner, animal rescuer, dedicated meditator, domestic abuse survivor, and avid knitter who lives on a ranch in Garfield, Texas, just outside Austin.
She was voted Best Writer in Austin 2006, and Best Memoirist/NonFiction Writer in Austin in 2016 and 2017 by Austin Chronicle readers. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, and the New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler, Real Simple, GQ, The Christian Science Monitor, and may other publications.
She is a former columnist for The Dallas Morning News, and the author of nine books, most recently The Tao of Bob about her life with an unexpected roommate — an 87-year-old Indiana farmer who moved to her ranch, rocked her world, rescued her from an abusive relationship, and taught her the true meaning of unconditional love.
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When did you go solo and why? What inspired the adventure?
My first solo foray was back in 1988 when I quit my job as an assistant editor and started freelance writing.
I was inspired by the fact I was getting paid far less than the writers I was editing to fix their work. Which sounds haughty but I was always a writer at heart, not an editor, and I knew I could do better than most of the folks I was editing. I was also inspired because I have always loathed office hours and office settings. Since 1988, I have taken only a few nine–to–five gigs, and only for extremely brief intervals.
Early in my writing career I augmented my income slinging hash and mixing drinks. I never got rich writing, but hard work and good luck — and excellent connections — led me to make enough to eke by. The advent of the internet initially was like striking gold — so many online publications needed content and paid well. There was a point I made money hand-over-fist writing fluffy web articles. Then the bubble burst and I was back to having to pick up some food service work. I never stopped writing.
Eventually, a glut of “writers” who were willing to work “for exposure” emerged, which meant getting paid for online gigs was tremendously difficult, and the pay scale was horrible. At the top of my game I made $1.50-2.00 per word for glossy mags. Websites paid pennies per word, if that.
In 2006 I decided to become a wedding officiant to boost my income. I read a piece in New York Times in 2004 about a growing need for secular officiants. I was already a writer and public speaker so I thought, ‘I can do that.’ I sat on the idea for a couple of years. Then some friends asked me to preside over their wedding. I loved it.
I stumbled upon a mentor who was already in the business and who trained me. Initially, I just did maybe 20–30 per year. But then, in 2010, a writing contract I had to do a sort of advertorial blog for JetBlue, touting the wonders of Austin, dried up. I remember exactly where I was when I got this news. I was sitting at Bennie’s, a cafe in Tel Aviv. I felt a wave of panic followed immediately by a burst of determination.
I messaged my friend Michael, who has built many websites for me. I asked him if we could convert my catch-all, goofy, hippie, whimsical website into a wedding-focused site. He whipped out the overhaul in no time. I started investing in advertising. Back then there were very few secular officiants. My business picked up speed fast. I think I did 150 weddings my busiest year, 2015.
That was also the year I reconnected with an old high school friend I’d seen only one other time since we graduated in 1982.
We got to talking. He popped down to Austin to take a tour of the University of Texas with his daughter. We talked some more. He knew I had spotted a tiny chapel I really wanted to buy. And just like that, he and his wife offered to become investors in my business. The plan was that I would sell my house and buy the chapel and they would finance property to put it on.
So I found an abandoned ranch out in the country-- it had been used immediately prior as a meth lab and makeshift junkyard (allegedly there is still a school bus meth lab buried out back).
I told my partner I had found a turnkey location. He flew down from Jersey, took one look, and said, “It’s a teardown.” But he and his wife never lost faith in my ability to manifest my dream so we bought the ranch. I’m already an overachiever. I certainly wasn’t going to let them — or me — down.
I didn’t really know the ins-and-outs of starting or running a venue, but by then I had performed maybe 1,200 weddings and had worked in many venues. I knew I could figure it out. Honestly, I tell people this truth: what most informed my ability to transform this place into a successful business were skills acquired as Student Council President in high school and chambermaid (that’s what it was called in the ’80s) down the shore in New Jersey.
I was hellbent on making it work.
Describe a typical day.
There is no typical day. During my busy wedding season I might have eight or more weddings in a week, some off-site, some on. People get married every day of the week and nearly every hour of the day so, for example, I might have a Monday elopement at 8:30 am. Though the majority of my weddings do still fall on Saturdays.
If I were to attempt to describe a relatively average day, it might look like this: wake up around 8 am, make a quadruple shot of espresso, run and pee while the coffee is brewing, run back in time to steam the milk, take my dogs out to pee while I drink my coffee, come in, feed the dogs, and meditate for twenty minutes. Those are the things that happen Every Single Day. Then I go say hi to the horses and feed the longhorns and my donkey. This involves stopping to say hi to Gerald, my friend and ranch hand, who tends to the horses and chickens and lives in an RV out back. I make a video blog while I’m with the cows — some random, rambling message, usually upbeat. I post the video on social media while I’m careening in the golf cart back towards the house.
Then I tackle emails. If it’s early in the week and weekend renters have checked out, I’ll strip the beds and start several loads of laundry. I haul trash to the road. If it’s a weekend and guests are checking in, I shovel horseshit from around the chapel and put poison on fire ant mounds. Somewhere in there I also contact the folks who clean the house and mow the lawn and see when they can come by. I also will write wedding ceremonies.
I go into Austin a few times a week. I try to stack errands and meetings with potential clients so I don’t have to go in every day. I hit a couple of AA meetings per week in town, too — there are none where I live.
I have to say, just trying to capture what I do it seems like, wow, that’s a lot. But I’m high-energy and I keep it moving. I have a very active Facebook page which is a true combination of community and marketing so it’s very important to me to make time for social media.
I write my blog, EmotionalRapeSurvivor.com early in the week. I teach memoir writing workshops on Wednesdays at the ranch and Thursdays in town. And times I’m working on a book, well, somehow I squeeze that in, too. But I have to say that is the thing that threatens to break me. Finding time to write The Tao of Bob made me really, really bitchy.
What’s the best project you’ve ever had?
My life. Seriously. That sounds like some off-the-cuff bullshit, right? But I mean it.
I’m far enough along now — more than half a century in and surely past my halfway point — to finally have a little perspective. You know that old curse, “May you have an interesting life”? Well, I have had an interesting life. Not all of it good-interesting. There’s been a ton of trauma, drama, angst, and grief. So much grief. And yet this really has shaped me. It has helped me cultivate a shit-ton of compassion. And the older I get the more I really think that what I do best is — let’s call it Project Grief. I just made that up. I have worked informally with people in grief for as long as I can remember. It is my passion. I don’t shy away from sickness, dying, suicidal tendencies, anxiety, fear, depression, or whatever else is ailing others.
Cultivating safe places — real and virtual — for people to unburden themselves is what I love best. This happens in workshops. It happens in email exchanges with my readers. It happens at the monthly potluck dinners I host for women who have survived emotional abuse. And it happened at a dinner I hosted for a year at the ranch for parents who have lost children.
Don’t get me wrong — I don’t get off on grief. I just know there is so much of it out there and connecting with others has helped heal my own grief so much that I like to foster similar connections for others.
What’s the hardest conversation you’ve ever had with a client?
My mind immediately went to a writing workshop student who was so horrible. I mean she was a fucking mess. She dominated the room. She made others uncomfortable to the point that they messaged me privately. I didn’t have great boundaries then. I didn’t know how to handle it. So instead of addressing her directly and saying, “Look, bitch, you’re fucking up my workshop,” I sent out a note to the entire group, couched in language that was probably too vague and surely came across as passive-aggressive. It was sort of a, “Here’s a refresher on the class parameters” note, but I guess the examples I gave to illustrate my point left no doubt that I was actually targeting the message at her.
She flipped out. She sent me so many enraged emails. But here’s the thing about that — first, I have often been one to send wildly enraged emails. So it wasn’t like I didn’t relate to her fury. And second, related, another student in class pulled me aside one night and pointed out to me that at the root of this woman’s rage was the same thing at the root of a lot of my own issues: anxiety. That deflated my self-righteousness pretty quickly. I remember joking with the compassionate student that I wish she’d waited a day or two to allow me to be pissed before pointing out the difficult student was, you know, human.
I’ve had other hard conversations. Like the two brides that burst out crying when they noted the lawn had been mowed. They wanted wildflowers. They had already been so difficult to work with, lying about the size and even nature of their event to try to save money. They were just sour people.
I am extremely reactionary — which I’m working hard to not be. As they stood there crying and complaining I blurted out that I was going to give them a 100% refund. In the end I just gave them 50%.
It’s funny recalling these examples because I am, very often, quite good under stress. But in these two instances, I think because my work with these clients was so personal, that I, in turn, took their criticism very personally.
Is there a psychology to soloing well? In other words, how do you keep yourself motivated and manage free-floating anxiety?
I have a theory, backed by no solid studies or data, that the reason I solo so well is actually rooted in an abusive childhood. Weird theory, right? But I was so dominated as a child, so completely disallowed to make any choices, that I cultivated a serious anti-authoritarian streak.
I’d much rather be the boss than answer to a boss. And I joke that I’d rather work 90 hours solo a week than 40 in an office.
Despite the fact that some of my work — teaching, performing weddings — involves being around people, much of my work, like the marketing and bookkeeping, is a solo endeavor. People don’t believe I’m an introvert. I am. I have to have a ton of time alone. I do think introversion and soloing dovetail nicely.
It’s way more difficult for me to de-motivate than to motivate. Lately I have been very consciously practicing creating downtime and days dedicated to self-care, to being off. I still answer some emails those days, but I also allow myself to stare at the walls, or go get a massage or have lunch with a friend. If I didn’t consciously make this effort, I could easily work all day, everyday.
I used to be riddled with anxiety constantly. It was a real problem. This, too, rooted in childhood (but then, what isn’t?).
Through tons of therapy and my daily meditation practice, I’ve managed to turn the volume way down on anxiety. A favorite trick is this — when I feel anxiety coming on, I ask myself what is the worst that can happen here? Is it going to kill me? If not, good. Move forward. If the anxiety is money-related, I remind myself that I have been working since I was 14 and fully independent since I was 18, and sometimes things were really scary, like write-a-hot-check-for-groceries scary, but that I always, always found a way. That helps. And I like to create what I call Mental Safety Nets.
Let’s say my truck breaks down — oddly I’ve had a lot of vehicle trouble lately and this just happened the other day. I was in Austin, I had a wedding far away, and I had to get back to the ranch to get my work clothes. I instantly created, like, a twenty-point plan of action. I listed friends I could call. I put out a request for help on Facebook. I reminded myself Uber exists. And I switched from worry about getting to the gig on time to gratitude at my abundance of resources.
How do you know when to say ‘no’ to a project?
I used to be terrible at this. I’m still not great at it. But over the years it has come to my attention that, while I still sometimes offer private client writing coaching, I don’t love doing it. It’s time-consuming and if you break down the money to an hourly rate, it’s not at all worth it.
So these days I almost always say no to requests for editing help. The more I say no, the easier it gets. I’m not very good at saying no to wedding work. Make hay while the sun shines and all that. Some of this relates to the fact that, living at the ranch, my monthly nut is pretty insane. I can’t really afford to say no. Some of it goes back to growing up poor and being a poor single mother — saying no was not an option. Now it is once in a while, and I keep trying to remember that.
Also, regarding renting the ranch out, legally I don’t think I can discriminate, but I do have boundaries.
Last year I was tempted to say yes to an after-prom party group because I was cash-strapped and it would have been good money. But I thought about it and the risk was just too high. The parents who contacted me couldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be drinking. As a venue owner and a recovering alcoholic that started drinking at 14, I just couldn’t say yes to the possibility of a bunch of drunk kids puking all over the place and potentially driving drunk. Not worth it.
My business partner, who did really well for himself on Wall Street and retired young, also serves as a mentor. He gently encourages me to think hard before saying yes to everything that comes up the pike, reminding me that the blue-collar mindset ingrained in me-- that if you're not working hard and constantly you're “doing it wrong” — is a false concept.
Your solo life wouldn’t run without these three tools:
1) My connection skills. 2) My iPhone (I was going to say my MacBook — it’s a toss up, but if forced to give up one, I’d keep the phone). 3) My dogs. Are dogs tools? I really, really, really need the company of my dogs.
Best work habit?
I am the most efficient person I know. For a long time I dated a guy who prided himself in his ability to slack. He really was fantastic at it. Our joke was that I could, before he woke up in the morning, paint the Eiffel Tower, cure cancer, and perform an array of other tasks.
Worst work habit?
“I’m just going to answer one more email before knocking off for the night...” I have this weird “rule,” and it’s pretty OCD. It’s very hard for me to go to sleep at night if i have more than ten emails in my inbox. At this moment, I have six. When I hit send on this, I’ll have five. So maybe I’ll get some sleep tonight.
Who else in your life is a soloist?
My son. His name is Henry Mowgli. He’s a visual artist and musician, he’s 27, and he lives in Brooklyn. I am so proud of that kid. He squirms when I brag about him, but he is amazing. He’s a soloist, too. He embroiders cool sayings he comes up with on jackets. I saw a picture on Instagram of Karen O wearing one of his pieces. And recently I was at a Parquet Courts show and one of the guitarists was wearing one of his jackets.
My friend Garreth, who turns rundown single-family homes into amazing housing designed for roommates.
My friend Ross, who left Austin after living there forever and managing a restaurant for 25 years, packed it all up, moved to West Texas, bought some old adobe buildings, and created a whole new life for himself.
My therapist. I'm sure there are lots of people I'm forgetting. I think the term "creative class" has fallen out of favor, but Austin is full of people doing their own thing.
Is your family supportive of your solo life?
I’ve only recently started really reconnecting with my family of origin, which I fled when I was 18. My chosen family in Austin literally includes dozens of very, very close friends, and hundreds of others. People are so ridiculously supportive of me that my life truly is an embarrassment of riches. When I bought the ranch my chosen family donated so much — time, money, tons of furniture, original art, advice, encouragement, and love.
Who is your biggest professional inspiration? Who are your mentors?
As a young journalist I had the great fortune of becoming friends with Molly Ivins.
She was my mentor, and a delightfully eccentric one at that. She was less about pragmatic advice and more about anecdotes. Early on she told me that if you’re a poor writer and you’re hungry and you have a cat and the cat is hungry, scrape together change and buy cat food because you can drink a glass of water and trick your stomach into feeling full but you cannot shut up a hungry cat.
She died way too soon, but before she did she imparted much wisdom and was a great role model regarding the importance of irreverence and sticking to your guns.
My business partner, Sean, is an incredible mentor. He is so patient with me. We’ve known each other since we were children. He knows my background, he understands my anxiety, and he is always very gentle, even when I really fuck up. Like that time I paid a contractor $50,000 in cash, and then that asshole balked when I wanted to give him a 1099. When I told Sean about it, he simply said, “Look, we’re not professionals. We’re talented amateurs.” (To clarify, he meant this regarding our decision to open a venue. He is an amazing professional in his other endeavors.)
My son Henry is also an inspiration and a mentor. When he was very little and we were very poor, I was inspired to take on all sorts of gigs just to feed us. This had a nice side benefit of providing me with a host of skills that come in handy running the venue. There is no one in the world I would rather spend time with. When I am with him, which isn’t nearly often enough, I feel totally at peace. He has so much wisdom. And he’s hilarious.
And then there is my Ginger Guru, Garreth. I met him when he lived in Austin. He moved back to his hometown, Nottingham. I try to fly over once a year and he flies over here once a year and in between we email all the time. He makes me laugh and calls me on my shit. He’s taught me all about SEO and marketing.
I could list probably twenty other people here but I’ll just do two more.
My friend Carol, who just turned 75, was a single mom and entrepreneur with a life as kooky as mine. She counsels me often, reminds me to slow down, and offers her life — twenty years ahead of me — as an example that it really is all going to work itself out. And then there’s Jack, one of my tattoo artists, and my gun instructor. He has taught me to overcome so many fears.
What aspect of running a business have you never warmed up to?
I fucking hate spreadsheets. Hate them. Sean sometimes asks me to update a spreadsheet or create a new one. I’d rather have a root canal without anesthesia. My bookkeeping “system” is pure hippie. I just list income end expenditure every day in a word doc. My accountant sends me some pretty funny letters about this system. I’m actually very good with math. I understand bookkeeping. I know how to use Excel. But I loathe it.
What do you do for health insurance?
Pay out the ass. I do qualify for Obamacare (we can still call it that, right?).
What’s the single best piece of advice you’ve received about … accounting-bookkeeping/pricing/marketing?
Sean is always getting after me to raise my prices. My rates for weddings are, I think, the highest in the area. But my workshops are super cheap and renting the venue is super cheap.
To couch that as advice, he reminds me constantly to value myself more. Shortly before he died, my 89-year-old roommate, Bob, sat me down and said I need to slow down. He offered to pay for a housekeeper. I didn’t want to take him up on that.
But after he died, his words stayed with me. Ever since I have found a way to pay for housekeeping and mowing. I know how to do both, but we’re talking a 3200-square-foot house, a 1350-square-foot reception hall, a chapel, and around seven acres of mowing (fortunately the other 23 acres are under a wildlife exemption so I’m “not allowed” to mow those).
Where do you do your best work?
When Garreth and his wife, Mary, moved to England, they bequeathed me this insane, king-sized, memory foam bed. It is outrageous. I write books in this bed. I answer emails. I do pretty much everything in bed that can be done alone. When I have to meet prospective clients, I meet them at Once Over Coffee in South Austin.
Of course, I do have to leave the house and coffee shop to go to weddings and funerals. At the risk of sounding like the cornball of the century, then my best work is done in my heart. The most important part of being an officiant is being fully present and client-focused, to ease any wedding day anxiety or memorial service grief that I can.
What do you do on your break time?
Break time!! Hahahaha. Good one!
Well I’m taking a little break from it right now, but very often I hula-hoop for an hour a day while listening to great music. I love to walk around Town Lake in Austin. I go to AA meetings, which might not sound like a break but I always leave feeling way, way better than when I walk in the door. I listen to audiobooks. I try to read but that often gets moved to last on the list and then I fall asleep after five pages.
Sometimes I’ll binge-watch a series or two, but then I get bored with TV. Oh, and I knit like a mofo. I mean, I KNIT. I knit so much it’s a joke. There’s a local DJ who sometimes talks about my knitting on air — that’s how well-known I am for knitting.
I also make up ridiculous songs for my dogs and spend time hanging out with the horses and the cows. And I love, love, love, love photo-documenting my life. Another thing I get made fun of for. Live music is always transformative for me and, happily, I host concerts at the ranch, so I can enjoy that without leaving home.
What’s the one thing about your life today that you most treasure that you wouldn’t have if you weren’t soloing?
Travel. I would die if I couldn’t travel and I travel a lot, anywhere from six-to-ten trips in a good year.
I cannot imagine an employer being, like, “Sure, go to London for a couple of weeks. Then, when you get back, work for a few weeks. Then you can go to Maine for a week. And of course we'll give you bonus vacation days so you can visit your son thrice a year and your friends in Portland once a year.”
That just would not happen.
Do you have a vacation routine? How do you think about time off?
Ah! My answer above was anticipatory. Because I have so many friends who I count as true family, and because it is important for me to see them, I often take certain trips every year to see them.
So I go to England, Portland, New York (2-3 times per year). I try to get to Maine once a year — I take a bunch of writers with me so technically it’s work as I’m the “leader,” but there’s a ton of built-in downtime.
I go to Galveston a few times each year. Lately I’ve been trying to get up t New Jersey to see my family of origin more. For all of these trips I also try to build in some alone time, even if it’s just an hour or two of walking. I love, love, love traveling solo to places I have friends so that I can have company and I can have solo time.
For me, time off is the Holy Grail. Being a soloist, I almost always have to bring some work with me (unless I’m on a silent retreat). But when I get on a plane, that is a signal to my brain that work is going to stay at a bare, bare minimum.
Ever miss the stability of a staff job?
What keeps you up at night?
I’ll tell you what woke me up last night — besides this 54-year-old bladder of mine. I read the Bill Cosby verdict right before I went to sleep. I am the survivor of domestic violence and narcissistic abuse, which I blog about frequently. I have been, as his victims were, shamed and accused of lying. Reading the courtroom stuff totally triggered my PTSD.
After I peed and ate an orange and then walked outside to let go into the darkness the four mice I found in the catch-and-release mousetraps — well, after that, I couldn’t get back to sleep. I was just so rattled by how rampant sexual assault, domestic violence, and narcissistic abuse are. I noticed I was having an argument in my head with one of my closest friends, because I was of the mind he wasn't understanding some points I was trying to make about abuse. It was really awful. Finally I gave up, got up, wrote it all down, and then I could sleep again.
Not quite a year ago, I went through an extremely horrific breakup. I was trauma-bonded to an abusive narcissist. My head was so utterly fucked up. I would have so much anxiety trying to sleep. Then I'd drift but wake up to severe shooting pains in my heart. I guess the term heartbreak has its origins in real heart pain. This went on for months. I was so damaged by all that went down, and by realizing after the fact all I had put up with, that my ability to sleep went haywire. Happy to report that I've made a lot of progress and, save for occasional PTSD triggers, I sleep great most nights. I am just happy to be alive and grateful for all I have. That makes for some terrific sleeping. (I do take melatonin and some hippie supplement which also probably help.)
What advice would you give your 22-year-old self?
Don't wait another 13 years before quitting drinking, quit now. Do not put up with shit from men. Or women. But really, watch it with the men because you were groomed to be abused. You are worth so much more than you think you are. You do not have to earn the space you occupy. ‘No’ is a complete sentence. Suffering is both inevitable and overrated, so remember that, while you can't totally avoid suffering, you sure as hell can suffer less — stop courting suffering.