Ask a Smart Person: An interview with Spike Gillespie
The author, entrepreneur, artist, and Goddess of Reinvention talks about rising from the ashes, having great ideas in the shower, and the magic of personal connections
Welcome to the first installment of “Ask a Smart Person.” I know a lot of really smart, accomplished, and cool people that I’m planning to pester for advice. This is where I’ll share those conversations.
“I’m always grateful when someone I am meeting for the first time doesn’t ask me what I do. It paralyzes me.” Spike Gillespie
I’ve known the writer and multi-hyphenate creative person Spike Gillespie since we both had young kids and were writing for the late, lamented Austinmama.com. As a working artist and single mom, she’s done so many jobs and launched so many creative ventures that I’ve lost track. She has, too. So, Spike was the perfect inaugural interview. She’s also just a good egg and I like her and it’s my newsletter and I’m only interviewing people I like.
Also, we both swear, so consider yourself warned.
Beth: My parents divorced and remarried when I was very young; it was the early 70s and I don't think I knew anyone else with divorced parents. This meant I didn't have much consistency in my life and I've always wished for it, but life has not complied. Being a professor is the most consistent thing I've ever done and that went the way of COVID. I'm trying to reinvent my life. I know you've also found yourself sitting in piles of charred debris multiple times and hustled and reinvented yourself. Can you tell me something you've learned from the experience?
Spike: Growing up in poverty in a blue collar community had a lasting impact, one I’m more aware of the older I get. There’s this stubbornness and pridefulness that both can be really useful tools—yay tenacity—but can also thwart one. It took me a long time to learn how to ask for help. Also I’m learning to let go faster. Kind of like Fail Fast. I’ve had ideas that failed completely on first launch (my attempt at a kids’ writing camp back in the early 90s) but later brought me a lucrative income for years. I don’t like to think in terms of failure or success. I like to ask myself, “Is this endeavor bringing me joy or anxiety or what?” Once I home in on it—decades of meditation help with this—I can then ask if this is a temporary condition or likely to be long lasting. My latest thing I’m growing aware of is that it happens to serve me, personally, if I look at one of my businesses as if it were a romance. My romantic history is so awful and I always hung in there way too long. Ironically, now that I have committed to a life of staying completely single, I now have the tools (from therapy, etc.) to spot a crap relationship and understand the importance of getting out. If my work is not bringing me joy and satisfaction, it’s time to make a change.
Beth: What are your go-to techniques for getting started on a new venture?
Spike: I can almost start a new business in my sleep. It almost always goes something very much like this:
1. I’m in the shower and I get this fabulous idea. I’m great at talking my ideas up in the shower.
2. If I’m still enthusiastic the next day, I immediately buy a url.
3. If I’m still enthusiastic maybe a week or so later, I might put some feelers out on social media or I might just jump to:
4. I build a SquareSpace website. I’m not saying they are the best platform—I still think their UI has some really stupid non intuitive hangups—but I am familiar with it, they offer a shopping cart option, it’s just easy enough.
5. I launch my business. Except for my food endeavors (my lockdown bakery and the small restaurant I own), nearly every business I start has incredibly small overhead. Like the cost of a website and maybe a costume—as was the case with me being a wedding officiant.
6. I dedicate myself fully.
I want to add that because I don’t live with any other humans, this enhances my ability to focus on this stuff—no distractions except the insane clown dog posse.
Beth: We've both moved out of Austin and to small towns recently. The neighbors I've met so far have MAGA flags and wear threatening gun-themed t-shirts. I don’t think they’re going to like me. I know you've had similar issues.
Spike: Yeah. I fucking hate it. I can’t stand that I moved. I have met SO MANY wonderful people in the small town I moved to. But this, I realized, can never counter what a small but violent group of MAGA folks did to try to drive me out of town, LED by City Council Member Stan Gerdes and his wife. I mean a council member tried to run me out of town in broad daylight with the support of this city. I have done everything to be a good neighbor—free live lawn concerts and pastries, art openings, etc. I publicly invite EVERYONE. The nice people come and it’s so wonderful. But I just can’t get over the violent way in which I was treated, to the point that the MAYOR came and knocked on my door to tell me the CHIEF OF POLICE needed a word with me because, it turns out, they felt my life was in grave danger and they needed to put a stakeout on my porch.
The polarization is horrible. And among all of the dumb shit is this gem: This town is Trump red. They made the assumption that I’m a big Biden flag waver. This is not true. I no longer operate inside of the patriarchy. I mean, yeah, I drive the speed limit (most of the time) etc but my honoring of the law is not because I think all the laws are great. It’s just to stay out of their stupid patriarchal space so I can focus on what really matters to me, which is feminism, art and dogs. I hate all the politics, period. left right center.
Anyway, I fucking hate it. I can’t walk down the street without worrying that someone might literally spit on me.
Beth: Has reinventing yourself affected your identity? Like, I am a writer-artist-donkey wrangler? Have any life changes changed your multi-hyphenate identity?
Spike: I’m always grateful when someone I am meeting for the first time doesn’t ask me what I do. It paralyzes me. I’m not even sure how many businesses I’m currently running. And if I do start the list I sound manic or boastful or both. Looking back, I see I have reinvented parts of myself throughout the course of my life, perhaps the biggest reinvention being the freedom I exercised when I ran away from home and away from my father’s violence. I do think a lot of my core is my core and will always be my core. No matter what I’m doing, my goals always remain the same: be of service, be kind, pay people a universal living wage, be grateful.
Many things have changed my life. I am going to use the example of a financial windfall simply because I think it’s the thing people most often fantasize about. Winning the lottery. Well, I won the lottery. Not the state lottery, but a small investment I made years ago surprised me with a huge (for me) payoff. It would be huge for a whole lot of people. It felt even huger because I never had big money to play with. And I’m just about through it all now and will have to resume working again—god that sounds so bourgeoisie. But I mean, I very purposefully allowed myself to live like my version of a rich person.
Being blue collar—well have you ever seen Graceland? It’s decorated like someone gave a poor person a lot of money and said, “Get anything you want at Sears.” But it was glam for Elvis at the time. So I bought a mansion, I did as I pleased, I became a philanthropist. It was SO INCREDIBLY FUN. Most of all, it gave me space and time to think. Which, of course, so has lockdown. The combination—not being able to travel internationally the way I usually do—was what I’m calling a Silver Gap Year(s) where I have been given the extraordinary gift of being able to find myself. Again. Or more.
Elvis Costello said, “Wasn’t it a millionaire who said imagine no possessions.” Anyone who tries to downplay the importance of money in our culture is full of shit. Now I have lived and can again live on a shoestring. In fact that appeals to me. But now I can go to my grave saying I spent a year breathing the rarefied rich people air and I can report back that their shit stinks, too, and that yes some people treat you really different when you have money and that is so stupid.
Beth: We're both 57. I don't know how I pictured myself at this age when I was younger, but I'm pretty sure this wasn't it. How does your current life square with how you've imagined it?
I’ll be 58 on January 10th. I learned to write when I was 7 or 8. The one dream I had was to be an author. I have realized that dream now many times over, and it really has been as exciting as I imagined it would be. I’m neither rich nor famous, but I have made a living doing what I love. Other than that I think being a single parent did a whole lot of the shaping of my life. I kept writing, but I couldn’t be judicious in my selection. I wrote a lot of crap for women’s mags and I’m fine with that. Whatever I had to do to keep us afloat, I did it. This is how I wound up knowing how to do so many things. Sheer necessity.
Beth: Are you one of those people who sets goals, writes lists, makes vision boards, or uses the word "manifest"?
Spike: I paint flowers and let the ideas flow. The best ideas come when I am nowhere near a screen. I’m not dissing screens, I’m just saying places and experiences that don’t involve my devices allow me to daydream. Like I said, I get my best ideas in the shower. I used to write lists. Once in a while I do. I finally figured out how to consistently use an e-calendar. The idea of vision boards makes me want to puke because that, to me, smacks of just another way the patriarchy distracts women while they take home the spoils. You don’t need a vision board. Fucking do it.
Weirdly I manifest some pretty amazing things. It happens so often it seems like a gift. I’m pretty sure it’s just random though. I mean, I have manifested full houses, a ranch, other large ticket items. And I have manifested rare blood for critically ill babies. Probably it’s that I have a really broad network. But for now, let’s call it magic.