One year since the start of the pandemic, it’s a time of reflection for everyone—especially many artists and entrepreneurs. It’s been a strange and unstable year. But for some, it’s provided the perfect opportunity to begin projects the world needs.
Brenna King is one of those entrepreneurs. In the past year, she’s launched a series of Partner Journals in collaboration with her relationship-coach husband. The trio of journals (Sex, Unity, and Vision) offers couples a path through difficult conversations that are crucial, especially right now. You can buy them here!
As an entrepreneur, writer, and visual artist, King opened up about how she ventured into new territory with these journals, all while pursuing other creative projects, asking big questions, and navigating the challenges of life in the 2020s.
Elyse Hauser: What was your inspiration for starting the Partner Journal series?
Brenna King: It was a product of Covid. When it hit, I received several phone calls from friends who were anticipating my business would have to close. They said, “What are you going to do? How are you going to make it?” And I said, “What are you talking about? This is a perfect opportunity to start a personal project!”
And that was my personal project. We started and completed it in about two months,
and it really was focused on things that I think people are missing. My husband and I are very, very open, and he’s a relationship coach; I just thought it was so lacking that people didn’t talk about sex in their relationships. Or talk about where they wanted to go. Even simple questions like, “Hey, hun, where do you want to retire?”
Each of the journals—Sex, Unity, and Vision—has different chapters. So you're not always dealing with really topical questions: some are more emotionally involved. In fact, women get the opportunity to talk about what makes them uncomfortable. Where else are we going to be asked those questions by partners who don’t know that this is a question that should be asked?
It was truly a combination of our relationship and how intensely we love and how openly we love. We wanted to give other people the opportunity to do that, and it just came naturally.
Hauser: It seems like it's a kind of avenue for people who don't know how to start those difficult conversations.
King: Mhm. And they really are, for the most part, very, very difficult. Even in our own relationship. Sometimes it is the hardest place to escape judgment.
"And I really think that as an artist, when you find your project, your medium, your words, things become effortless. You no longer sit there in fear of judgment, you just start creating."
Hauser: So after you had the idea—which is so interesting that it was a Covid inspiration moment—what was the process of creating and releasing the journals like?
King: Well, my whole life, I've written stories, and I've always been an artist: I own a small design agency, so for me the visual design was not a problem. My problem was having years and years of writing, but being so afraid to put out a book. I thought, “What’s the first step I can take to put my own work out there? This was a perfect solution.”
So the journals were self-published on Amazon. It allowed me to step away from all the emotion I had tied to my other writing, my philosophical writing, my poetry. This ended up being the bridge. The process was simple in that it wasn’t necessarily my own writing. I was doing it for other people.
And I really think that as an artist, when you find your project, your medium, your words, things become effortless. You no longer sit there in fear of judgment, you just start creating. So this wasn't something I needed to be nervous about. I was just facilitating this experience for other people, and I didn't need to say much or have an opinion about the questions I was asking in the journals.
But it was a pretty in-depth process of learning how to self-publish, designing my own covers, deciding what was going to be on each page. I'm very much a minimalist, so I lean toward the monochrome palette. It’s similar to my photography: I almost always shoot in black and white. There's this stark emotion I get from these really simplistic contrasts. I don't find color very necessary in my work—that’s why we chose the black covers for the first release of the journal. We did release some journals that were colorful too, jewel tones with patterns I illustrated by hand, and they just felt too clinical to me, like a training manual. So we moved to black. Since that experience, I've decided that all my upcoming publications will come out with monochromatic covers.
I will say that Amazon has been a decent platform to work with, in regards to self-publishing. It does take a little bit of know-how, but I was able to go from 0 to 100 by myself, with my own design skill.
It’s really that during Covid, I’ve had nothing but time and space. It said to me, “Now is your time. The market has stopped.” Every person working out there would pay a million dollars to stop the market and get ahead with their own entrepreneurial venture! I said, “This is it. It's right here. It's right in front of you. Just dive, pick something and dive.” And that's what I did.
Hauser: What has the reception been like? Have there been any couples that shared their Partner Journal experiences with you?
King: I'm glad you asked that. Yes, we know some really, really lovely people that have them in hand, and we know that they're using them. But no one yet has come forward with any responses! They just ask for other journals, like, “Oh, yeah. Can we pick up the other two?” You know, they'll start with one, and then they want to grab the others. So that was a great response.
It's such a free love project. It's a project without boundaries and without requirements; that's really what art is. You know, if you're worried about judgment on the other side, then is it truly your art? It wasn't for us to be worried. And I say “us” because my husband is a part of my sounding board family; without him, I wouldn't have been able to ask these questions of myself.
You know, my godsister had the first-draft copies and she went off into her new relationship and had a good time with those. Of course, I gave her the Sex book first. She said, “Hey, if he's going to stay, he's got to be able to do this with me.” I loved that.
Hauser: Yeah, that totally makes sense as a place to start, because that's what people are doing in new relationships before they have those deeper conversations.
King: It's true. You know, every culture has their own sex culture. I think that in the U.S. our culture is very specific; it’s suppressed. There is so much room for growth here. For years I was so tight, so balled up and suppressed in my own sexual growth (or lack thereof). Now I'm 38 and I'm thinking, “Oh my gosh, all that time I wasted!” I could have just been honest, and I could have learned to own what I love and own my body. To really be able to pronounce and define what makes me uncomfortable and what I'm comfortable with, and what I want to explore—that is super exciting.
The statistics are staggering: women do not talk about their needs. They do not own their needs. These journals are a diving board for all of those conversations. And maybe you're not ready to take it to your partner; that's fine. Maybe you get to explore that by yourself.
Hauser: So you have the journals out, but you also have a number of other creative projects—tell me what else you're working on?
King: Well, I have a small team around me. My circle is very small, but they’re like my family. I've just met incredible people along the way. And a few years ago, we started a podcast called Altogether Human. It’s one I might pick up again.
In my early thirties, I had this idea: that we are all together and we are altogether human, and it can be taken in two different contexts, depending on how you read the name. And I really like that play on words.
I also recognized that every time I went out to a grocery store, people would just stop and talk to me—I'm constantly smiling and they would stop and I would get these stories. Like, I'm just trying to get ice cream, but now this old woman is telling me this incredible story about her grandchildren! And then we’d depart. It was just this beautiful moment, and I said, “I really need to record those.”
On the podcast, we did 45 minute NPR-style interviews. For 45 minutes I just opened my heart, and people would pour these incredible stories out to me. It focused on stories that move us, really normal people with these amazing experiences. I was already a photographer—I started photography in 2008—so I was able to take photos of every single person I interviewed for Altogether Human.
And I think that podcast may begin again. I think Covid has slowed me down. Being a business owner and trying to be a fine artist—they work against each other for sure. Or it might be just nuts of me! But I get away with nuts.
I also have a new podcast called Forage. It is very much my new adventure: I finally dedicated a certain amount of myself every day to following my passion for fine art. And that just happened, you know. I said, “Well, I've got a head start on my 40s, which is when life truly starts, right?” Because by the time we hit 40, we've learned enough to make a really impactful decision on the direction we want to go.
I’ve got to jump on it now, since I'm only 38—and I want to have another baby next year. I already have a 17-year-old. When she was young, I started writing children's books, but she got too old too quick, and I did not get them done. I have an editor in New York who is just waiting for me to have the next baby because I am sure—beyond the shadow of a doubt—that I will jump right back into those books as soon as I get pregnant.
To finish these children's stories will be really beautiful: they’re based on slightly Buddhist principles, things about altruism, being empathic and accepting self, things like that.
Hauser: Having another baby! That's a big plan for next year.
King: It is. I think I was kind of born for it. I'm definitely a family woman. Although the older I get, the more alone time I need.
I’m also publishing a poetry book—my first poetry book. I will have about 30 poems in there. The second poetry book will be out either this year or 2022, which is a book of hokku poetry: a very early form of poetry, actually before haiku. It's very seasonally based. You can't use metaphors; there’s so much you can't do. It's the simplest form of poem I've ever been introduced to, and very few people are able to even instruct on it because it just goes that far back. So that's what's next.
BRENNA KING'S READING LIST...
Hauser: As a creative and a professional and a parent, how do you balance all the things you're working on with your day-to-day life and responsibilities?
King: Honestly, I'm not quite sure. I mean, I wake up at 5:30 and run the dog a mile, and then I go to my little in-home gym, work out for 30 minutes, and I dose myself in pour over coffee. (We're pretty coffee-snobby because we're in Portland.) I try to give myself an hour of, I'd say, thoughtfulness—not meditation; I meditate at night. I’m not a morning meditator.
I try not to start corporate work until 10 a.m. I leave my mornings to ‘wandering’—when my brain is calling me to record something or to start a podcast episode, it always happens in the morning. My ideas are very big—these big silly questions are ones that I will spend the morning on. Are we meant to be beings together? Who actually determined that humans are meant to join each other? Who proved that we weren't solitary animals?
And I totally think it’s worth it. I love that: I’m so satisfied with that kind of deep thinking. And then 10 a.m. hits, and work sneaks up on me. Then I’m just kind of in and out of work—as an artist, you really have to accept and be conscious of the fact that there is a rhythm.
Hauser: If you find out how you personally work best, you can make so much happen.
King: I’m not a hyper-efficient woman. I am, however, very efficient. My closet is very simple. My hair is very short. Those are things I do not want to spend time on. There's not a lot of color in my life, so I don't worry about matching. I actually am very, very sensitive to color. My world is very calm in that I don't inundate myself with that all day.
I think that it's really about just having what you absolutely love around you. You can’t have five different hobbies stacked on shelves and in baskets in your living room. You won't get anything done. You have to take a step past the fear of losing out on any one of those things, and really focus in on your top two or three.
My favorite book by Elaine St. James also had a lot to do with it. It's called The Simplicity Reader. It's an old book, but in it, she says, “Sell the boat, buy used gifts for Christmas, don't do this, just do that.” I went through every page and just soaked it all in. And I said, “This is it. I'm not going to do all of this anymore.”
I mean, what basically indicates madness, right? The collecting, the addiction to shopping—which I've been through. But I do find that it's a scary thing, especially when everyone around you has materialistically full lives and they reflect on those materials a lot. I am just thankful that I have a family now. I can keep it simple and they're very happy with that. It is hard to be simple or to live efficiently if your people are not on board.
Hauser: So, at the end of 2020—a difficult and unusual year—did you feel like it was challenging, or did you find benefits in it? And if it was challenging, how did you face those difficulties?
King: I would say I did not face them nearly to the degree that other people faced them. I know no one personally who got sick. I saw and I heard stories, but it was very removed from my space, my home, and my circle. And I'm very, very grateful for that.
I've been incredibly careful to stay healthy and quarantine. And I’m just grateful that I could, you know? In my ignorance, having not been exposed and having no direct relation to anybody who suffered hardship or lost anybody (lost themselves, for that matter), I think that my focus has more or less been left in this realm where I’m asking big questions. Are we as a people going to learn from this? How is this going to change us as a whole? I think I've always asked those questions, but as a mom, of course, you always wonder what things are going to be like in 20 years. The time goes so fast.
I've also been seeing this from an industry side—a marketing side. Not that I'm ‘taking advantage’ of what's going on, but that I’m using this time. I’m trying to stay grounded. I'm trying to stay aware. I read the news every day. I don't want to get too far from it. The reality is that we can learn from this—it's just wondering, what are the big curves up ahead? We are kind of blindsided; we're driving around and we can't see where we're going. Those are the really big questions.
I just keep on writing and staying in touch. Both of my parents are alive and well, and I do think the closest I've gotten to really understanding the reality is imagining them simply going to the grocery store. They're both in Montana—where we have a lot of conservative country—and people are refusing to wear masks, and that scares me. And for that one moment, my heart breaks and I say, “What if?” But then I get sucked back up into all that's going on.
Hauser: I mean, there's a lot to think about right now, but you also just can't ponder the full weight of everything every day and still function.
King: You can’t. I've been thinking a lot about loneliness, and I wonder where we missed the ball. We reached the end of 2020 and we still are not communicating well. And people desperately need it.
I think that’s why these podcast ideas are coming back up, because how wonderful to listen to normal people talk about their ups and downs and be able to say, “Oh, me too.” And then you have somewhere to belong for that 45 minutes, you know? I think it's just about—even if it's a digital platform—giving people a place to belong. Somewhere they can be exposed to humility and compassion. Podcasts have that power in a very accessible way.
"When it comes to creativity, you do it for yourself and you can't be sucked up into ‘hyper-efficiency,’ or the idea that you’re going to be an influencer. You do it without any pressure to influence. It is truly for you."
Hauser: For people who are looking to use the rest of this quarantine time to start their own creative or entrepreneurial projects, what advice would you give to them?
King: I wish that everybody would just dedicate an hour to themselves, every week. What I do is put a little line on my notebook and it says “cray cray.” Just off the wall, just acting out. I want people to spend an hour in that time and just make the coolest, craziest connections—connect new ideas, be a complete fool. I think that is probably the most impactful time of your life. You'll learn the most about yourself when you are completely alone and not afraid of a damn thing, and you can throw it all on the table.
That's where I found my passion. And that's where I think a lot of people will be able to figure out what the next steps are. If you are creative, it's going to happen. But you need to remember that the journey is the goal. So just do your work: Do the dark work, the light work, the really emotional work. If you find you’re having intense reactions to something, then explore that, dive into that: it's a journey into Self. It is not for other people. At the end of this life, you are not going to reflect on all you've created for others.
A big part of life is genuine relationships. We know that. But when it comes to creativity, you do it for yourself and you can't be sucked up into ‘hyper-efficiency,’ or the idea that you’re going to be an influencer. You do it without any pressure to influence. It is truly for you. And when your artwork is done, it's done. Go let it live—it’s done when you’re satisfied with it. Then you get to talk about it and admit that you totally loved it, and you did it all for you—that's how it should feel.
So it's a very selfish thing. I picked a very selfish job to do. I love it.
Hauser: It makes me think of the phrase “art for art's sake.”
King: Yeah. It’s like it absolutely has to exist.
Hauser: So, we talked a little about this, but what else do you have planned for 2021? For your projects, work, or personal life?
King: Well, I’m really excited to jump into those children’s books again. I’m also writing fiction fantasies—I don’t know if I’ll ever publish one. It’s just such a pleasure to be writing them, I don’t know that I’m going to need to publish any of them.
I know the poetry’s coming out. I know I'm having a ton of fun. We introduced Artist Hour, which is an hour every Tuesday at 5 o'clock. It’s a silent hour of work for people, because I really need to be held accountable, and it just helps to be with people. It’s so incredible to see people doing their work. And it's very hard to do it by yourself.
I mean, there's just so much to create. There are so many things to create. There are a million things that I cannot even think of, that I want to do right now.
Hauser: Is there anything else you think artists and entrepreneurs should know while trying to move ahead and create?
King: I could recommend a couple pieces of literature—some women authors that have helped me blossom. Sharon Blackie, I really owe quite a bit to her. She has done an amazing job of mixing historical myth, mysticism, magic, and feminine power and energy. I usually don't talk like that. But she does it in such a professional manner, such a beautiful manner. She wrote her last book If Women Rose Rooted, which I recommend to any feminine energy. I just cannot say enough good things about that book.
I probably read three books a month, if not four. I try and keep it balanced between a poetry book, a process book, and a fictional or philosophical piece. So I read three books at the same time; got to stay efficient, right?
I’m also really stuck in the classics. I read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” one of the first versions written, not the modern version. And then I’m starting Walden for the first time soon, and just a lot of these small pieces of people sitting with nature. It's been an incredible year of reading during this downtime. Margaret Atwood also came out with her new poetry book Dearly, so I'm learning to read poetry. I've been a writer of poetry, but it's a whole other ballgame to read it.
And the thing about poetry is it’s similar to photography, or any creative project. You learn the rules to break them.