Making passion projects happen

By Gabriel Popkin

So you have this great idea. You’ve looked into every corner of the Internet and no one else has done it. You can’t get the idea out of your head, but how do you make it pay? You have a passion project! “It’s important to find time to do projects that are important to you but that you aren’t sure are going to pay off,” said Brooke Borel, who moderated the session “Making passion projects happen” at the ScienceWriters2014 meeting in Columbus, Ohio. Borel was the first of five science writers who shared their experiences to a packed room. The speakers’ stories were as varied as their projects.

"Making passion projects happen" session

Left to right, Maki Naro, Rose Eveleth, David Wolman, and Ben Lillie in the "Making passion projects happen" session. Photo by Virginia Hughes.

Borel admitted she “did not expect [her project] to take the form of a book about bedbugs.” But it did, and after she got herself a book deal with a modest advance, she realized she didn’t quite know how she would pull the project off. She continued taking assignments and pitching easy stories while writing the book, and used Kickstarter to fund travel. Four years (including one six-month deadline extension) after she conceived the project, the book is written and will come out next spring.

Author David Wolman’s passion project came from a desire for a dynamic way to share his past work with new readers. “We all have these great bodies of work that’s just gathering dust in a corner of the Internet,” he reflected. “Maybe there’s a way to … breathe new life into the archive.” With the easy-to-use multimedia storytelling platform Creatavist, Wolman compiled some of his favorite stories into an ebook called “Firsthand.” He added vignettes and photos from his reporting to bring the projects alive again.

Theoretical physicist turned storyteller Ben Lillie told a story of “gently directed serendipity. At almost no stage did I intend to do anything that happened.” After wandering into shows like the Moth and working for TED, Lillie realized there was no live storytelling venue specifically for scientists. So he and another physicist launched the Story Collider, which now produces regular events in New York and other cities. Through ticket sales, grants and donations, and paid story-telling workshops for scientists, Lillie now largely supports himself through his passion project.

Brooke Borel in the "Making passion projects happen" session

Brooke Borel in the "Making passion projects happen" session. Photo by Virginia Hughes.

Unlike Lillie, freelance writer Rose Eveleth is a compulsive planner. Before she launched Science Studio, which curates the best science multimedia from around the Web, she researched everything similar to what she had in mind, and talked to everyone she could think of. She then took the plunge and got funding from Kickstarter and NASW. “Always talk about the thing you’re working on,” she said. “The more people you talk to, they’re going to know somebody who knows somebody.”

Maki Naro rounded out the panel with the tale of his web comic, Sufficiently Remarkable. It started while he was “working all the time and going crazy” because he wasn’t doing art. So he started drawing comics, built a following, launched a Kickstarter campaign and finally went freelance. He’s now looking for his next passion project.

Oct. 19, 2014