It's my story, right? So if I can speak to just one person authentically and you chase that one person, you will speak to hundreds because you're trying to get as niche as you can. And that's what you're going for. The ripple effects will be wide.
Hello, it's Tony Howell and welcome to Conversations with Changemakers. In this month's special Halloween episode, we speak with Dana Black, podcast creator and host of I Swear on My Mother's Grave.
Dana is also a SAG-AFTRA actor known for her work on The Big Leap, Chicago Med, Empire, and more. I wanted to have Dana on this particular season to discuss using grief, loss and disappointment to create art, content, and change—both in ourselves and in our audiences.
She also talks about this sort of daily flow between being an artist and a healthy CEO, how one goes about starting and then growing a podcast, website, community and business. So without further ado, on to the episode.
Dana, I'm so excited to welcome you to the podcast. Thank you for joining us.
Thank you for having me. For real, it was like, oh my god, I get to be on Tony's podcast. I was waiting. I was kind of like, “When am I gonna get the invite? Like, was it coming?” And I am so honored.
The humor is already coming out! Well, I was also sitting on it for a while. I'm like, this is the perfect. I was like waiting. And I love that this is coming out on Halloween. So I know that this past weekend was an important one for you. And we'll dive into that. But I want to rewind a little bit. What made you want to start, I Swear on My Mother's Grave.
Ah, what a good title guy. That's good. When I started my podcast, I started recording early, like May of 2020. I was feeling like it's now or never, it’s time to talk about your mom.
My mom had died in 2016. And I had kind of put off for many years when my mom was living talking about her, because she got really sick in her later years. And so there was a metaphor around pushing down all the feelings and all the things I should have said while she was alive, and then she died.
And then, even after she died, I kind of didn't really want to talk about the shame and anger and feelings I had around my mom's sickness and around her death. And so in those dark days, I was like, “Well, I want to start processing some of that through art or video or just me talking into my phone.” And then I realized, “Well, I want to do both. I want to talk into my phone and talk about my mom while looking at pictures. But I also want to talk to other people and feel less alone in this really dark time of collective grief. I wanted to like get on Zoom next to my Spanx not wearing a bra, like I am today, vecause I wanted to feel authentically me.” And yeah, so I was like, “I want to talk to friends.”
And I didn't know it was a podcast. I'll be honest, I listen to podcasts sometimes. But I'm not a huge, diehard fanatic. And so I realized, maybe it is, and I asked a really good friend of mine who's an amazing audio creator and runs her own company in Maine to be my editor. And she's also lost her mom. And she was like, “Yes, I will do this. 100%.” And it was in those early dark days. So we didn't really know what we were getting into. And it was it was intense. But I couldn't have done it without her.
So yeah. And then I launched in August of 2020. I put out a trailer that literally said the words. “And when I got the call that my mom might be dead, because they weren't sure, I said out loud, ‘I hope that she has.’” Like, “I hope… just take her,” because she was really sick. And so putting that out into the world immediately was terrifying to say that in my trailer, and to talk about that, and it instantly freed me and almost just like started blowing up people were like sharing it and, you know, really excited to start hearing the show.
And it's terrifying. But I was like, “Oh my gosh, I have something here, because guess what? It was terrifying to say… but like other people feel the same way.” Potentially. Potentially—not everyone feels the same way. But saying the thing that's scary. And I believe that shame dies when stories are told in safe spaces. So saying the thing that was like scary to say, and feels shameful, actually should free me.
I read that somewhere. I think shame dies when stories are told in safe spaces. And so for me, it was a safe space in my literal home to say these things out loud into a mic safely. But then it's an intimate experience to say something in your own closet by yourself and then you put that into someone's ears in a time of such isolation. And so a lot of people talked about like, the time they started listening to me coming into their homes when they weren't seeing people or talking to people, except over Zoom or drinking, or this intimate experience, which audio is, during a really isolating time.
And then now that I've come back, people are like, it's so interesting to hear you again, because it takes us back to like 2021-2020, you know? And so there's like a visceral response, even though now we're out in the world again. Yeah. Anyway, I could go on and on about that.
There's been a few changes, like a wedding recently! You’re a new person, so to speak.
God! A new... I don't know about that. Still, still don't wear bras.
But no, yeah, we got married. When did we get married? June of 2022, on the patio of my grandma's nursing home. My mom's mom is 95. So I like to joke, “It's every young girl's dream: to get married on the patio of her grandma's nursing home.” But it was amazing. So yeah, and I put a little episode out about that.
And, yeah, that was a long time in the making. I've been with him for 10 years. And I put that off as well, that also happened during the pandemic, where it was like “Time to go to therapy! Let's talk about that.” Why am I resisting commitment? What's going on? And a lot of it was kicked up about my mom and my dad and their marriage, and just having to deal with a lot of feelings around my family, and how love was modeled to me. And I think I was so scared to get married for so long with my mom being sick, because I was like, “Will she be able to attend? Will she? Will my mom be present? Can she even come?” And so almost the feeling of having her gone, I didn't have to think about that. I had to miss her in a different way. But I didn't have to navigate her pain, or trauma, or sickness. So I just had to navigate her being gone from this earthly plane. Yeah, yeah.
So I want to applaud you. And we have a similar story, just like through lines, like of losing a parent. I lost my dad. But what I really love about what you've done is you are turning that grief or that loss into exactly what you said art, and it helps people feel less alone. Is there any connection there to your work as an actor that you were like, “Oh, let me let me tell stories!”
That's it. Yeah, I think it… well, I think we're able to put ourselves in other people's shoes. And I think I have empathy, of course, and there's a vulnerability that a good artist should have. We put ourselves into roles, we throw ourselves into roles.
And I was just talking to somebody recently, who was like, “Oh, when my mom died, I was in a play about a mom and a daughter.” I was like, “Same! When my mom died, I was in a play about a mom and daughter.” So you know, our art can imitate life and all that. But then when it really is happening to you in real life: it's not a part, it is your life. I think it can be scary to actually be like, “Oh, I can't take this off. It's actually happening to me.”
But I think all of those experiences of putting on different roles and characters and being able to connect with people and listen to them on stage. And like really being present in the moment, and listening and not having any judgement. As an artist, sometimes we're supposed to come with, like open hearts and open minds. And I think that's helped me.
I'm a curious person. I think a lot of artists are also curious. And I think that helps me on the mic. You have to be curious. And I have to follow what interests me like anytime something I am curious about an interview, if it's going somewhere where I'm like, “Holy shit! We need to go down that path.” If that excites me, that will excite a listener, because it's actually authentically something I'm interested in.
But yeah, I'm trying to think… like, I think it's really about story. Yes. It's about storytelling, for sure: how you curate a story… trying to think about how you piece it together, right? An episode, a conversation… and the storytelling aspect. Because that's what it is, when you're putting out a good episode.
Like they are! And I guess I want to ask you this is, because artists now are expected to be their own publicist on social media (Yeah) and all the things.
So my question is like, what are the similarities and what are the differences in telling stories? And to me, it's like the word “Artists” with a capital ‘A’ versus the word “Creator” with a capital ‘C.’
I look at an artist as someone who has the intention of creating change, like they became a write, or a singer, a director, whatever because they want to make their impact, where this word creator that's come about is about getting attention on the internet, like putting things out there.
And that is not always true, because you have to use artistry as a creator in order to score that attention. And then as an artist, we have to become creators. But to me, it all boils down to the purpose. I don't know if you feel that way. Just because you've become an incredible podcast creator.
I'm just like, and I asked you recently in a meeting, I'm like, “So how's the acting? Like, where's that fit into you?”
And you were like, “On the website, where is acting? Is acting next to podcasting? Is it below? Is it… do we just delete it?” Oh, it's all part of it. Because I also have to, like, stop working on my podcast to do a self tape, you know what I mean?
So yeah, but the truth is, I know you know this, so it's okay if I say it, in case like some theatre director wants to call me tomorrow. I started stepping away from theatre. A couple years ago, even before the pandemic, I was slowly feeling disenchanted with it. I wanted a break. I felt burnout. I didn't excite me the way it used to.
And so, for me, I literally said the words, “I want to start speaking in my own voice.” And I wasn't like, “It's a podcast—and I'm gonna start during The Great Pandemic!”
But I knew that there was something else for me. And either it was… like I'm still really curious about TED Talks. I'm curious about public speaking, motivational speaking. I didn't know what it was going to be. But I knew that I didn't want to create a web series. But I was like, what is it?
And then this thing happened, where I literally started. It was around my mom's death anniversary. It was April 16, 2020. And I took her picture, and I went to the lake and I opened my voice memo app, which is the easiest thing any creator can do. It's actually pretty good quality, let’s be honest. And I just started like, looking at this photo of her, which is a photo I used in every interview, I would put it out every episode I recorded. But at that time, I just looked at her and I talked into this voice memo app about this photo for 20 minutes and like 30 seconds.
And then I was like, I want to do this. I want to just keep talking about her. How do I do that: either on the mic, or in reflections, or on a YouTube channel?
The point is, I am an artist. I'm always an artist at the core of who I am. Truthfully, I guess I'm struggling to be like… am I an artist, or creator, or am I just Dana? Authentically me, putting this out into the world? I don't know.
I don't know if it's either/or. I’m also like, it's okay to be a creator! I don't want to make it seem like art… “Yeah. Artists are like… we’re the correct way to do it.” Right? So I… yes, I hear you and I don't want to be falutin about it. Because I think we also get scared as humans to be like, “I'm not an artist. I don't know how to do that.”
Yes, you do! Yes, you do. You know how to tell stories, you know? And you can do it on a voice memo app.
So I hope I answered that. Oh, my God…
You did! And I think that there's some things there that are gonna resonate with people of the the inner voices that are saying all the things—whether you're focused on acting or exploring storytelling for the first time.
We can only be one thing, right? And we're all learning. I think even after this pandemic, a lot of us have learned what's really speaking to us, and I think sometimes artists are like, I can only be this one thing. And that's what I was told. That's all I know. And if I quit, who am I? If I quit, I never succeeded.
It's like… No! I succeeded for a long time. I did lots of plays. I did lots of shows. It was awesome. And now I'm doing something different. And I might come back to that thing, but I'll tell you like, and we'll get into it, but my newsletter and all the stuff you taught me about email marketing, and starting the website… I'm so reengaged by writing and less so about my social media posts about the podcast, less so than talking about the podcast. I like writing about it.
I like figuring out which pictures to share in the newsletter. That reignited, as a person, as an artis, as Dana like, “Oh, I like writing!” I never thought I'd be like, “Oh, can I work on the newsletter this week?!” Like, I get like really excited what's going on… more than I would’ve a self tape. It re-energized me, versus like, “I hope I booked that TV show.” And yes, there's way more money in booking the TV show than my newsletter, but I like working on it. It activates a different part of my brain.
There's so much that we can unpack there. But let's talk about the money part, because that might be interesting to someone. So at this point, I want to open up Pandora's box, because you just kicked off your first Mother's Grave Retreat, and I have not spoken to you about it.
I know. It just happened like 24 hours ago. So it's still raw.
Well, let's start superficial and then you can share what you want. But this was to me… it was you monetizing the brand that you've built. And so you just touched upon it. You've built a really wonderfully engaged community, you have hundreds of five star reviews on Apple podcasts, your email open rates are astronomical, your social media engagement is incredible. What's your secret?
Keep going…. And I'm thin….
YAS! And you're the BEST, and The Chicago Tribune says “You’re God's gift!”
This is great. This is fun. You’re like my manager!
Yes, all of that. Sure.
What's the secret?
How do you get these people engaged? Yeah. What do you think?
I mean, the truth is that a lot of that community is from the acting world. You know, it's from Chicago. It's like already this built in incredible artistic community, right, which so many of your listeners will maybe have in New York or wherever their base. And if we're lucky, we get this incredibly supportive, artistic community. So I'll be honest, that's one.
I feel like the truth is you have to put out a good product. And sometimes you forget this, or I would I before I even launched my show, I would look at my now husband and be like, “Should I get merchandise? Like do you think? When do I call, you know, Spotify to try to get the deal?” And he was like, “Maybe you should just make one episode. Like, just put out one.”
Right? But I was already jumping to all these things. Like when would this… and I'm ready to go on, you know, a famous, you know, talk show, and he was like, “Maybe you should just keep creating content that people want to come back for.”
So if again, if I keep chasing what's curious to me, and I make good audio, literal sound quality that people want to hear, but also have good stories, and authentically show up as myself, and speak in my voice (not try to imitate somebody else or try to be somebody else, or do what I think others want). That's how I had to lean into it for me.
And I believe that it's my story, right. So if I can speak to just one person authentically, and you chase that one person, you will speak to hundreds, because you're trying to get as niche as you can. And that's what you're going for. But it will ripple effect, the ripple effects will be wide, because most of my listeners mothers are living. I mean, I can't speak for everyone, but their are people who listen to my show have lost a dad, who are new mothers, my show people have said it's like listening to what it's like to be someone's child. So it isn't just about grief and loss. It's about being someone's child. It's about legacy, you know.
So I think when you're starting, really figure out who you're talking to, even though the ripple effects might, it might go way beyond what you were focused on. But I think having a niche: Who are you talking to? Why are you telling it? And why is it a podcast? I think that's huge. Why is it this medium? And I learned that really from Eric Newsom who is a guru in the audio space. Like, why is it this? You know, why is this a play? Like, why can this only be a play and not a TV show? Why can this only be a podcast? Or why is this an audio project versus a book? You know, a play? So, yeah, that was a little bit of everything. But I think really knowing who you're talking to, once you could speak to one person, you can speak to everyone.
Yes, that's specificity. And then I kind of just want to echo off what you just said, like, who knows, maybe it becomes a book? Maybe becomes a play? You never know!
That's right. You never know. Oh, yeah, baby, let's... I want a cruise ship. People go on a cruise ship, they've all lost a mom. And then it can grow to like, you've just lost a parent. It's a paternal, maternal/paternal loss cruise ship for people grieving. But we're drinking, we're having fun. We're story sharing. Because, yeah, and you have to have joy, because inside… Well, you don't have to. But there has to be some feeling of relief, release in grief. And that's part of my show, too. We are laughing and crying almost simultaneously. Sometimes that kick of release has to exist, or you couldn't get through your life, but you couldn't get through an episode.
Why don't you tell us a little bit about what the Mother's Grave podcast retreat experience is like, since you just went through it?
I did. I also remember you saying to me, you know, someday you're like, I'd like to be a participant or I wish I could be a participant, not about your mom, but you've lost your dad. And I remember that, when you were like, I wish I could go. And it made me… I was like, yeah, I hope it will grow, you know, to be all inclusive, not only to female-identifying people, but really everybody. But you know, paternal loss because yeah, this year was just female and non-binary identifying people 21 and over.
Yeah, it's pretty raw. Like I just told you, before we got on that there's a couple I haven't even responded to my friends text being like, “How’d it go? How’d it go? How’d it go?”
But the truth is, it was one of the most amazing weekends of my life. And I have been dreaming. I am a person who loves gathering people. I used to have ladies nights in Chicago with a bunch of artists at my house—like 40 women. And I would host birthday parties at this property that we went to. That retreat was at… I've thrown you know, events, I just love people gathering! So it felt this weekend felt like a combination of all the things I love, and then a new step into my own my new life work. And it felt like I was supposed to be doing this for a long time. And that came to fruition.
And five amazing people said yes. We had somebody drop out. So we had six, but somebody had to back out because of COVID and five amazing people said yes to an experience that never existed before. That was new, and was the first time ever. And we gathered and this was for people who had lost a mother either in death or through estrangement. So there were two people there whose mothers were still living and three had lost their mothers through death. And some of them I knew really well and some of them I did not know as well.
So people came from Nashville, from Chicago, from everywhere to come to this property on the lake in Antioch and stay in cottages. And we built an altar together with objects from our home, we burned objects, we made mandalas on the beach, we drank and ate. We meditated. We just talked, We hugged… we got in a hot tub together. I mean, warm water is the way to go in grief.
We had breakfast brought to their cottage in the morning, each one got to like have a personalised breakfast… and talk about self-care around grief. So it was awesome, and we laughed a lot, it was incredible.
And it's hard to describe: and the pictures aren't going to do it justice; the photos aren't going to do a justice. But the feeling of creating a safe space for people to take a weight off their shoulders and to be held and to be seen, and to feel just like they got to rest.
Some people got to leave their kids and their jobs. And it was literally 48 hours. And that's it. And the joke is that we made right at the top, I said, “If you leave this retreat healed, we're gonna go viral, right?” So that was the joke. And so the whole weekend, somebody would be crying, and they'd stand up ago “HEALED!”
You know, because it was like, you're not going to leave here healed. That's not how it works. But, you know, it was just an amazing, beautiful experience.
And the best part and as I say this to you, as my business coach, creator helper, Tony, I, as a CEO, or whatever, a new entrepreneur, I looked at my partner, this person who's done a lot of consulting with me, who was at the retreat Heather was working on this has been working on this concept with me for almost two years. I looked at her, we weren't even done with the retreat. It was like Saturday at one, and I looked at her and I said, “We should look at dates for the summer. I think I can sell this twice, again, in the summer, and in the fall, let's sell it out three times.”
And she just was like, she started crying. She goes, “Baby girl, you're all grown up!” She did. She's like, “You did it!”
So that's the segue. But no, that's the joke of like, what you've taught me and other coaches and people in my life and other friends. Like, if you dream it and you build the thing that you want to attend, that you want to be a part of, you will attract people who are craving spaciousness, and this opportunity. And that is what happened. And we sold out at the time in under a month.
And there were other people who still wanted to come and we're like, let me know when the next one is. Some people want to come back a second time from this retreat this October. So it's just it's so exciting. So yeah, Bali, Greece, Italy, Traverse City.
Lets go! World tour! Yeah.
And the way that people showed up, you know, again, a lot of these people are artists, because artists are pretty fabulous, amazing, magical people. And a lot of these people just showed up with open arms, great questions, advice, you know, to help hold each other.
They were an incredible group of people to hold each other's stories, be respectful, give advice, but also just listen.
My mom's ashes were finally dealt with. I brought my mom's ashes with me. And I've… she's sprinkled all over the beach. And that was a big moment. And I led with that, like, I finally am dealing with my mom's ashes for this retreat. So let's do this, you know, and everybody listened and helped me and like, held space for me. And we laughed because I was pouring her in these like seashells, and she fell all over the table. And you got to just you gotta roll with it. Because Mom is here literally and figuratively, on this altar. And now she's at that property. And so that was a huge release. For me.
I was a participant and a producer, right? So it was just spectacular. And I'm so tired. Mentally and physically. That's the other part right?
Within the retreat, and within your life, within the podcast…. can you share, and thank you for doing so, so generously… anything that you've learned about grief?
Oh, I just looked at your eyes in that moment.
Just little teary eyes. It's okay.
Well, just yesterday, and I… it's weird to plug someone else's show. But he's very famous. Anderson Cooper's new podcast? I don't know if you've heard it. All There Is. Awesome!
He lost his brother to suicide. He lost his mother. He lost his dad. Right? So there's a lot. So he's going through Gloria Vanderbilt, his mother's home, and he's talking about finding objects. And then he has famous people on his show.
And he has Stephen Colbert on and most people, I think know some of his thoughts around grief because he talks about it a lot. But Colbert said recently like, holding space for someone and asking them about their grief is like catching a fainting person. So grabbing them. It's like opening a door and stepping down with them… stepping into it, instead of just saying “I'm sorry” and moving on.
And that we believe as a society that it's so scary to talk about grief. And we think by talking about it, it'll be worse—our grief will be worse, heavier, harder. But it actually lightens the load. It literally frees you and you move through the muck.
And yes, now I talk about it all the time. I'm honest: I have a podcast, I have a retreat, I have this, I have that. And I must say it doesn't go away… which he also talks about. It doesn't go away. It's always gonna sit there. He also talks about it being this tiger that sits to your right, and said tiger is always there, and it can hurt you. It can hit you, but if you treat it right, if you are like really being cautious, not… well I don't know how he worded it. But he talked about it can hurt you, but it's not always going to, and that I know, I know that I am more joyful and in love with my mom, and more forgiving of her and myself because I fucking talk about it all the time.
And because I like look through her stuff. I have to open. I don't want to do it all the time, but I have to open big Tupperware bins of all her objects, and look at it for the show, for the website, for the newsletter. But it helps and then sometimes I have to close it because it's smells like her and reminds me of her. I have to put it away.
I can't avoid it any longer, and hauling her ashes around from house to house. That isn't it. So I need to start dealing with it. Because it's a literal weight. It's a bit… they're heavy. They're still in the box.
So what I really learned is, I am not alone. And actually, people have it even harder, like you think, “Oh, I'm the only one. I'm the only one.” No, no, no. Everyone, everyone is suffering. And that. Yeah, I'm at a loss right there.
Well, do you have any tips? Or have you learned anything about your grief? For me any ways to process that?
Just what you just said, you know. It's something that's come up lately: people have said that the opposite of sadness is joy. You know, like, there are two opposite ends of the emotions. And so lately, I've just been liking this idea of chiaroscuro that like with with darkness, there is light. With light, there needs to be darkness. Like, yeah, it's just all part of the human experience.
Yeah. And like, like I talked about on the show, the show is really for the living, it's for me, so it's for my mom. It's like, yeah, yeah, you're gonna get… we're gonna talk about you. We're gonna talk about how you were beautiful, and you loved Chico's. And you're also sick and dealing with addiction and neuropathy, but it's also about me, and how I'm moving through that, right?
It's about my life. It's abou my relationships, about my marriage, it’s about how I move through the world. So it's really for the living.
And it's for the person that I'm talking to. And that's why I call the episodes the name of my guest and not their mom, even though I ask for their mom's name at the end and all that, but it's about them. They're here, they've survived. They've made it through and, and I, and I want to see like, I want their advice on how they're raising their kids, and how they're moving through the world, and how they're approaching Mother's Day. And, just yeah, how they're still functioning, right? And how they're still thriving.
I know you've released your Season Two. You've already released 16 episodes (yes), but I also know a little behind-the-scenes secret, you have several waiting in the wings. So...
I don't know about waiting. They're waiting in a Dropbox, but I don't know if they're in any wings. They're like, they're deep in Dropbox from like, 2020.
But at least they're in the cloud, okay?
Among those conversations, what has been a through line, like a lesson that you've, you've learned as Dana that like, “Oh, this is… this is same for so many people.”
Mostly that I'm yeah, that I'm not alone. But what I've really… what's helped me is that idea of how many people have watched their moms change, physically and mentally, and how hard that is to watch one version of your mom, and then this other version, and how to process that change. And everybody has different ways of moving through it. But that's, it's hard. Even if you've lost your mom at 16 or 37, or 50. It's, it's hard. It's hard to watch her be… to cry, to be sad, to watch your mom in pain. It's tough, mentally or physically.
I’m trying to think what else is like profoundly interesting about… a lot of people talk about the age, when they approach the age, their mother was when she died. You know, that can be a big trigger, which Stephen Colbert also talks about, and Anderson Cooper, actually, but that idea of not thinking you're going to live beyond a certain age.
I've learned that most people at the end of my interview say, “Let me know if you need anything from me and if it's going to ever air, but even if it doesn't, Dana, this space, and just this time you gave me this morning,” and sometimes it was during those dark days, but they would say like, “it was a gift and this was the gift. The gift isn't the episode or the you know, hashtag. This is it”
And then I would always be like, I would hear that and say, “Thank you so much,” and “But seriously… we need to air this. This was an hour of my time.” You know, the joke of like, “This better… this better be a good episode.”
No, no, I would say, “Of course. Thank you. Yeah, like, I'll let you know.” But you're right. And that's the truth is that there is so much stuff just sitting in Dropbox being… waiting to be used, or not used.
The point is, it already rippled out into the world that that person already got off the mic and then went and talked to their children, or called their mother, or so sorry, like their father (or their mother if they're estranged), or started interviewing. I have listeners who now interview their parents. I have people who go back and say, “After that, I decided to start journaling,” whatever it was. So that's cool. Even though again, like that is a lot for me to hold sometimes.
So that's the joke of like, “Well, I hope it becomes a podcast episode, because I'm not your therapist.” But deep down, it is therapy.
And I like, like the retreat, we said all weekend, “This is a therapeutic retreat. It's not therapy, but it is therapeutic. Right?” Yeah. So it's been incredible to like, feel that as Dana. And I'm getting therapy from it, too. I'm getting so much from them. Yeah, yeah.
Because for years, my therapist would joke with me, like, we'd have 50, we, we'd have like, we'd get to 55 minutes in our session, we'd have three more minutes, my therapist would say, “Let me know when you want to talk about your mom,” because I'd be talking about a play, or a guy I was sleeping with. And she'd be like, “Just let me know. We have three more minutes, so if there's anything to talk about…” because I just didn't want to talk about it. I'd be like, “She's fine. She's fine. She's dying, but don't worry about it. So I'm in the show…” You know, and I just always avoided it. So this podcast was also a way to be like, it's time. It's time. It's time, Dana. You’ve got to talk about her. So yeah…
I am so glad you brought it up, because I was about to ask. But oftentimes, I don't think that people are having conversations around mental health. And so you've taken actions to not only help yourself, but help others. Does that come from your mom's story, that that you're like, I'm gonna focus on mental health? Or where did it start for you?
I mean, she didn't, right? She didn't really talk about it, or want to. She avoided therapy, or she would see one therapist over the phone and be like, “I don't like it.”
And we talked about that this weekend, at the retreat, that a lot of our moms probably wouldn't have gone to a retreat like this. They wouldn't have done that, right? So this “generational trauma,” which is a word we throw around a lot, but the truth is like, we're healing ourselves, and we're healing our mothers in the process by doing so. It sounds cheesy, but it's actually kind of true and freeing.
And even this weekend, burning things that hurt my mom: my mom's prescription pads of narco and of oxycontin and all these pills, because my mom was in a lot of pain physically, I took those pads, and I burned them. And I handed pieces of paper: pieces of these prescription pads to my attendees, to the participants, and asked them to burn them for me. And then I burned other sheets of paper where she wrote down how sick she was, and sad. And they went up in flames like literally like, like you could see the combustion of the literal burning of my mom's pain in that ritual with other people who are processing their mother's pain or their own pain.
And so I guess the podcast and those conversations are allowing me to free. The retreat lets me do it literally and figuratively, but the conversations are the same. It's… but I'm not a therapist. So I tried not to ever… I don't ever say like, I know the answer, or this is what this is for, this is how everyone deals with addiction.
I'm going to say something wrong, too. I'm going to… or not wrong, but I'm going to say something that maybe someone else might disagree with me, but I'm only speaking for myself. That's where, how I tried to approach it on the podcast.
Like, I'm not giving advice. And I'm not a licenced therapist. But here's how I felt. Here's how my mom's illness affected me. And here's the guilt that I feel around it or the shame or the anger. And I can only come from, I can only speak from my point of view, and then let others come from their point of view.
And yeah, I just think by talking, I'm freeing her and myself. And I feel like I'm outing her sometimes, which can be hard. And I've talked about that on the podcast, like I'm telling her story. She doesn't get permission anymore, to tell me no or yes. But I hope that she approves, you know, I hope that she's okay with it. And I hope that it's freeing her in the afterlife.
Thank you, not only for creating the show and sharing your story and your mom's story, but also here on the podcast, just revealing so many things with us. So thank you.
Well, another reason why I also wanted to get you on the show is this idea of taking another lane: expanding into a different medium. So if someone is listening to this, and they feel like they might want to start a podcast, what would you tell?
Don't! I told you I'd say that. I told you I'd be like… do not!
Yeah, I was like… I know what’s coming!
That is… that's a joke, that's slightly clouded in some truth.
No, be really clear before you do. So. I think I said earlier, really knowing why you're making it. Who you're making it for? Why it should be a podcast versus something else? What's your goal with it? What do you want to do with it?
If you're like, I want to go make a lot of money: don't do storefront theatre or start a podcast.
Know like, that is not why you started it. But if that's the way… if you love storytelling, and you feel like it has to be told through the ears, this intimate experience right? Figure out what kind of podcasts you want to make. Are you doing a narrative? Are you doing a fiction docu-drama? Are you are, you know, are you doing conversations—interview based? Are you doing a one person rant. So just knowing the format you're going to use, and buy the book Making Noise by Eric Nuzum. I think I've promoted him twice now. That's fine. I'm not getting a kickback. But Making Noise is an incredible book. And he's like a guru and very, very, very, very smart. So his book really helped kind of guide me in this journey. And you know who gave it to me? Courtney Rioux.
(Oh! Courtney!) Our dear friend, Courtney Rioux, because we were both. She had hers, and I had mine, and then she bought it. And then I found it. Now I follow Eric Nuzum, I get his newsletters, and it's just a really helpful guide for, and it's probably even dated by now, but it still has so much good stuff in it. So that's what I would say about podcasting.
And then I would really say, if you have the money, and if you have the funds, and if you can do it, you should hire an editor. I believe in it. 100%, I believe in it wholeheartedly.
I believe that just throwing up copy and tape that has no shape, or purpose, if that's your goal is just to have fun, you're talking to your friends, and you want to put it up just for fun. But there's so much noise right now, literally, in the podcasting space, it's hard for good shows to get through, because there's just so much up there. So really being purposeful with it, your listeners will tap out if they feel like if it doesn't have good quality, and it doesn't have good intention. And people have a lot of things vying for their time and attention. So really being purposeful for what you're handing them and, and when they trust you with an hour of their time or 55 minutes to cast… that's like such a gift. And you just want to be purposeful for what you're putting out.
And good stories, good people, and good audio quality.
But I also believe you can change the format of your show, if your followers trust you, I think I'm going to put out more episodes of just me or I'm going to put out poetry like somebody reading stories, like, I don't think they have to just stay as a conversation. I think my listeners are down for if they trust me, they'll go wherever I go. They might not love the episode, but they're like, I like to trying a different flavor. So I'm gonna mess with the medium a little bit more. I hope, as I keep going,
I gotta put neon lights around what you just said, because you said you're gonna “mess with the medium” and your listeners will follow you. But I feel like as artists that we have that as well. If you look at pop stars that take different directions and what not. (Yes.) So it's giving permission.
And if we trust them and love them, right, like Lizzo! Like what's Lizzo doing next?
You want to know? Slaying! Like yeah, just get your fluid out… all the time. Like, I'll follow you everywhere. People want her to go to have like a documentary series where she goes and she plays old instruments all over the United States, you know, like old timey white man instruments. And we're like, we'll follow her and like, listen to her commentary about it.
I believe that and I've heard that, like, if they trust you, they'll go along. You know, and some people have said, I'll be honest on this, like, they love Peter Sagal. You know, it was a great conversation. And it was fun. And some people are like, “Yeah, it was good. But we like you just talking to regular people. We like you, just talking as Dana. So we'll, we'll follow you everywhere. But what we really want to… we're just… what we're coming to do is to listen to you talk to people. So either if that person is famous, or that person is Tony Howell, or that person is your Aunt Mary, like, we'll follow you, if we trust you. And we're listening to how you are coming to the table to have these conversations.”
And some people are coming just for Peter. Sure. But but then they're like, “Oh, I might want to come back and listen to Dana talk to her veterinarian, or just Dana alone talking about her wedding.”
And this is the other thing, you also think a celebrity is going to boost your numbers, and it's going to raise your whole boat. And it doesn't always raise your whole boat. It raises part of the boat. But it doesn't mean they're gonna go to your entire back catalog. And that's also what I've learned a lot.
I mean, I kind of knew that. But when I really watched it happen, yes, his numbers were high. But it didn't… it doesn't raise the whole ship. But good content raises the whole ship! More episodes with great, great people and great stories and vulnerability and empathy… that raises the boat.
I don't want to be exploitive. But like, you mentioned you're spending your mother's money on the podcast. Do you think if she were able to leave a review on the show, this will get Dana’s humor: If your mom would leave a review on Apple Podcasts, what do you think she would say about the show?
Ah, Ah, god, yeah. That's intense. Oh man, I think she'd say, which has been coming up a lot. “That's my daughter. I'm proud of her.” I really do. I think she take credit for like, “I raised her right. That's right. That's my amazing, funny, strong, smart, creative, compassionate daughter, and she gets it from me.” She’d do a lot of that, right? She's like, “And she has great legs. So did I. And here's more photos of me looking fabulous.”
I think now, I think she'd be super proud of me. It took like two years to really feel that now. Because I think she'd also be at the beginning, I thought she'd be angry and embarrassed and ashamed. But especially the episode I just put out recently about her as a teacher, I went back to her high school and did an interview inside her classroom. And I know that she was, and I put that up for me. That you're not usually supposed to as a creator, or podcaster. You're supposed to create content that other people want to consume. And like it has to be for the listener, it can't be for you, blah, blah, blah. And I was like this one’s kind of for me, and kind of for my mom, and how much I love her and, and honoring all the good parts of her, even when we talk about when it got a little dark in her life. But I went back to this classroom, and the vice principal came, and I think that she would have been like, “Yeah, girl. That's right. Tell the world.”
Mrs. Black was a LEGEND.
Yeah, Mrs. Black. She was a legend. She was making science sexy as the episode is called. And did she drink her own urine? Did she not? And so we have to show all the facets of people.
She was so ashamed of things that I was like, “No, you're done. You're gone. It's my turn. And we're going to talk about it. I'm going to free you. Hopefully, I'll free someone else in the process. But, but, but… while we're freeing you, I'm going to honor you. And I'm going to talk about the good and the bad. Yeah. So I think she'd be really proud of me today. I do. I really do.
I agree, she would be very, very proud of you. I'm super proud of you. One of the things that I also want to highlight is that you've made some career evolutions, and I think that some of our listeners might be listening. And they are experiencing this idea of like, what would it be like to start a podcast? What would it be like to start a business? So if you feel like someone is sitting there in a job that they don't like? What advice would you give them? This is specifically going back to your days as an executive assistant.
You've done your research! Jesus, you're gonna like, pull out the first person I dated and like, “They're here in the room!” (Your first kiss…) And then, “In 1982, you said this to your grandma,” I'm like, Jesus, Tony! You're crushing it.
Yeah, I was the Executive Assistant to the Executive Director of the Goodman Theatre. They're an amazing regional theatre in Chicago—huge Equity house. And I had that job for five and a half years.
And the joke, and as we talked about a minute ago, is that I inherited some money. So the advice I give people is like, you hope your mom dies and leaves you some money, and then you can leave your day job, but it's not always how it's gonna happen. But that is how it happened. And I'm really honest about it.
So when young people in Chicago have asked me, or young, like, thriving, because I was part of a mentorship program in Chicago, for young female and non-binary artists, and I help pair people up with mentors, and people are like, “How did you do it? How did you do it? How do you do this?” And you're like, “Well, I gotta be honest. Like, I'm not gonna lie to you. That’d be false.” If I said, like, “I left the Goodman job, because I had all this money saved up, and then I went to pursue theatre and TV and film, and I didn't have to work for…” No, no, I was honest about it. Even though I had worked. I mean, I still was working part time when I left the Goodman, I just mean, that allowed me the space and the freedom at 36. To be like, I'm gonna go pursue TV film, and not have a daytime desk job anymore. I worked part time in a salon, I did other things. And yeah, I started booking TV and film right as I left the Goodman, because I was like, It's time, now I have the time to do it.
So I worked at the Goodman for five and a half years. And to be honest, that job taught me that as, as artists, it's really important to work inside a really large theatre, because you learn a lot about how the bread is made. You're behind the curtain, in the kitchen, in the basement, like you're seeing all of it, right? And it was really helpful.
And so I actually think working inside institutions like that are really valuable. Are they sustainable, sometimes for young people to make enough money to live on? No, but it was super eye opening for me.
But I think, I think if you want to make something for yourself while you're at a day job, or that you're trying to have a side, creative gig, I don't know, I think some people do it just to say they're doing it and I, and again, I just keep coming back to like, the why: why you want to make something, because it can be exhausting to have a job and then you're making these side things and, and some people need it as an outlet and release and to keep you engaged, but you might just burn yourself out.
You know, like, I just think you got to really know why you're doing it. Because it can be really hard to try to straddle both worlds, but like your daytime job, and the straight up hustle, but I only say that now because I'm old and tired.
But I did that for a long time. I would like do shows at night and then go to the Goodman. I'd be up for a Jeff Award, which are like our Tony's in Chicago, and I would have to like go to the Jeff Awards and then show up at work like at 9:30—like makeup smeared all over my face. And I didn't win, you know? No, but I'd be like… I’d smell like gin. You know, I'm coming off an award ceremony at the biggest event in Chicago, right? All these theatre people and then I had to go back to my job at the one of the largest theatres to work for the Executive Director. You know, it was very meta, and very intense to straddle both those worlds, but I felt so grateful to do it. I was like, “This is so cool. I work in a theatre, I do theatre at night.” But it's tiring, it was really tiring.
So anyway, but I also felt like because I worked there, they were generous and let me do things. They let me leave early for tech. They let me go and do these things. But I still had a job to do. I mean, they were flexible and respectful. But after the jobs, I needed to be sitting at my desk.
I don't know if that's totally advice. But I do think that you don't just have to be a server. I do believe that. I think there are so many other ways you can be creative and have a life. And not just like, you have to be a server, you have to be a server. But I'm saying I think we limit ourselves and we say you have this. It’s that all actors bartend and serve. It's like, no, they nanny, they do standardised patient work, they have side gigs, they do mock trials, they do administrative work from home, whatever it is. They walk dogs. So I just think there's so many ways…
To make money. It's okay to say that word. It's not a bad word.
To make money! Or hope your your mom dies and leaves you a little bit of money. And then literally I'm like putting all her money into the business. I'm like, oh, okay, gotta be careful, right? But yet, maybe it's her legacy. I keep thinking it's mine. And then I'm like, maybe it's my mom's, right? It's both. It's both. Like, I think it's my mom's. Yeah. So at least I'm like, creating something good with it.
So yeah. And timeless. It's a digital legacy that will always last.
Yeah. Oh, my god. That's so true. That's what people kept saying, when I was like, “I don't know, if I want to come back with a second season.” They said, “You've already made… you've already made the thing. You've made a book. It's just an audio form. And you've put it out in the world and will always be there.” And I was like, “Whoa, that's so cool!”
And I wish I'd listened to the advice and didn't come back. No. And then I came back, and it's just, it will live forever. It's amazing.
Before we hit record, you let me in that you are like bopping around right now. And we were discussing this idea of digital nomad life. But I think people that are stuck in one place are probably saying the grass is greener, and like how lucky you are. And you've touched on it a few times about, you know, mental health, taking care of yourself.
Of course, my mission is to teach the artists how to become a healthy CEO. Are there any lessons or things that you practice now that you are juggling new things that help you take care of your wellness?
Hmm, I'm letting go of perfectionism. That's, that's how I do it. I don't succeed. But lately, I've been like, well, that's kind of messy. I didn't really like that. Like the website, you said, “What if we did this? Or if we did that? Or we added this?” And I take your advice.
Sometimes I'm like, “No, it's too much. It's too much to think about right now.” And it's kind of… it's kind of janky, like that version of what we've built. Let's leave it, that's fine for now. It's fine for now. And you've taught me that, too.
Like, you’d watch me build a website, and you'd be like, “Girl, you got to just get it up. It's not perfect. It's the first… it's the first version of the house.” And I was like, “It has to have everything! It has to show everything I built and made and the photos have to be neat.”
No, just start, just begin, I would never have done that retreat, if that website was absolutely exactly what I needed. And it was still amazing. I helped build it because you taught me. And so releasing this perfectionism.
For me, even the episodes, sometimes they're not exactly how I want to sound or the conversation wasn't exactly what I needed or got. And I'm like, but it's still going to be of value to someone. And so releasing that perfectionism for me is huge. I'm struggling with it every day, but I'm just really hard on myself. And I'm trying to just be like, my intention for the retreat weekend was be proud of yourself. And at the end, I was like, beyond proud of myself. Yeah, I think we should love ourselves more and give ourselves more credit.
Because everyone else, I think a lot of people forget, when you're in motion and creating and building, from the outside, a lot of people think you have it all together. And they're like, “Holy!” They're watching you. And it's so inspiring to them. And they're like, “Wow!” Even though inside, you feel like “I don't know what I'm doing. I can't get my transcript right,” and the rest of the world is going “You're killing it!” That's what they see.
So if I try to watch myself through other people's eyes, like “Holy moly!”
Now it can… you can still be hard on yourself, and in the darkest of night, just like famous people are like everybody loves them and wants them and they can still feel lonely and sad… and that's a different story or different conversation, but I have to remember like, “I'm doing okay. I'm doing great.”
And when I feel like I need to tap out with perfectionism or exhaustion, I have to literally hand my phone to my partner and have it taken away from me which I do sometimes. I literally am like “Take this away. I don't want to talk to anyone. I don't want to do anything online. I don't want to text anybody. Take it away.”
Or I cancel. I cancel plans. I pushed my schedule, I pushed this interview with you.
You had a boundary, which was good. And it actually worked better because now we get to talk about what happened. I was thrilled. I was like, yeah!
Yeah. Yeah. But it's hard to do that. So I was like, “No, you don't have to do 18 interviews. You've already put up half of your season. You need to be on an interview hold.” Even though today I'm doing this one that I had to count, we had to cancel twice. But I'm doing it today. But I'm on hold. I'm not doing any more interviews.
You have to conserve your energy. So I have to conserve my energy. But yeah, yeah. I think it's really just asking for what you need. And asking, yeah, asking for help from people around you. That's huge. That's huge. Even after my mom died, I was like, “You do this. You do that.”
It's hard. It's hard to take help. I know that. But if people offer, they’re offering for a reason. I think people want to help. I think we forget that. We're like, “Oh, it's a burden. It's a burden.” No, they're asking, “How can I help you?” So especially after grief, but I think in general, even building a business, building your life.
Like if you need support, ask for it. And talk to someone.,
Dana, you've been speaking to me. This has resonated so deeply with me. And I know you're gonna get several more fans from this conversation. So to close this out, what is ahead? And where can people connect with you? What’s ahead? What are you cookin’ up?
Well, Tony, you'd be proud of this. Because I just said all that about, like, “Take the rest you need. Turn your computer off.”
No. Yesterday, I got back from the retreat, literally got home and was like, “I'm updating the website!” And so I wrote like, save the date: the new dates for the retreat are June 8-11. We're doing three nights now (instead of two) for eight people. The price is gonna go up a little more, because it's more nights, and it's the summer. And then we're looking for dates for the fall. So the point is, I was like, I'm going into Squarespace. And I'm going to update it myself, and it says, you know, save the date, in case people want to come and look at the website, right?
And hopefully, we'll open registration at some point, because we have to debrief as a team on Friday and blah, blah, blah. And so that's what's going on for me is working on the next retreat. I have four more episodes to put out for Season Two. And then hopefully, I'll come back for Season Three around Mother's Day, I think, but I have to get through Season Two. And then I have so much content to use. And then more ideas and people that I want to pitch. So I think I will do a Season Three because I love the podcast, but it's also a marketing arm for the retreat, right? To be gross and talk about marketing. It is the thing. It is the thing that allows me to talk to people along with the newsletter.
And the newsletter actually did a lot of the marketing, which I was in total shocked by. I thought it was going to be through my podcast, but my podcast hadn't launched, remember? Like the newsletter came first! My second season wasn't out yet. And I already started selling slots just from the newsletter. So that was mind blowing. I thought it was going to have to be through the podcast and how I talked about the retreat that actually came through just an email blast. That's how people learned about it first, and then social media.
So yeah, finishing the second season, and enjoying living in Traverse City, Michigan with my husband, and going on hikes and kayaking and eating cherries, and, you know, whatever, whatever we do up here and try to get through my first winter in northern Michigan. So yeah, that's what's going on. For me.
I'm working on more speaking coaching, too. I've been hired to do more speaking coaching for people, and then I'm gonna start working on it: my own TED Talk someday, and maybe write that book. Yeah, I'll put that on the list.
And I'm building an Oracle Deck for Mother's Grave. I'm really excited about that, with an artist. So that's the goal is to sell some like personalised Oracle Cards through the podcast, my own swag, you know what I mean? My own swag. So that's kind of where I'm at today.
But I'm also I need a nap. I need a nap, and maybe a bagel, with cream cheese, and lox. That's what I want right now.
I love it.
And I couldn't do any of it without you. You've taught me so much. You've taught me an incredible amount. And you believe you believe in your clients. Oh my God, I’m gonna cry.
Yeah, I can feel it. I mean, I know you took my money. You took it hard. You were like, thank you. I will charge you extra for that.
But the point is, I just feel you believing in us. I really do. I watch it online, even through you know, shouting out your business leaders, the CEOs that like, I can’t remember what the course is, but the leaders and you gave each one their own page and just how you lift us up and promote us not only online, but personally, you know, you do with your email, and you do it verbally, and I feel it.
It just means a lot because I'm like, “Oh my God. And Tony's impressed?! Tony's inspired by me, you know.” And that feels good.
And like I told you and I'll say this on the mic. More people have said, “I have learned about your podcast from your signature on your email.” I'm not being funny. It's not a joke. Because I'm talking to people because I worked TEDx in Chicago this year, I worked another event, I did this... they're random people that I'm talking to, through the events, or their partners, or the people I’m on a team with and they're like, “Oh my god, I saw your signature.” It’s cool. “I just shared it with a friend,” or “I had no idea! I'm now listening to your podcast,” or “I lost my mom. And I've sent it to my aunt.” Like, what? An email signature? Tony Howell everybody!
So yeah, yeah. And it's so basic, but like, and then you liked my signature, you said, “I like what you're doing on yours.” So, yeah. And to make sure that you're grabbing all of your names online, you taught me that during the pandemic, I would just watch you on Instagram, that grabbing your domains. Grabbing where you are: like Twitter. Like I'm not on Twitter, but I was like, I'm grabbing it, I'm gonna have to own it. Because someday I might be on it. And making sure that you're just like, active where you need to be. But picking a lane, you don't you don't have to be on all of them. But making sure that you you least know that you have the choice has been helpful.
With LinkedIn, I wasn't like… now I've got my banner up and my picture and new people coming to me on LinkedIn. Okay, that's enough about you. But you're great. And you're cute. And thank you for everything you do for us.
Thank you, Dana, for being a shining star and for sharing your artistry with us today.
Thank you for joining us. Now I shared a few things that stood out to me within the episode but I want to hear from you. What stood out to you? Do you have a story to share? Be sure to maybe take a screenshot or share how you found this episode, but we want to hear from you make sure that you tag @MotherGravePodcast and @TonyHowell.
One footnote I want to add here to the closer is that while Dana discussed using some inheritance money to grow her podcast, she is furthering her mother's legacy and her own, which I applaud. But I don't want you to think, “Well I don't have an inheritance, so I can't do this.” That is Dana's self deprecating humor. She is discounting the incredible work that she has done. And truly, anyone can start a podcast, build a website, start a business, grow any of those things, so do not talk yourself out of it.
You also heard Dana talk about how her websites, email signature, and email marketing fit into growing her podcast and her business much more than social media. So if you're interested in learning the fundamentals of how all these different pieces go together, be sure to take the FREE Business Blueprint for Artists at TonyHowell.co. Just click the “Start Here” button while you're there!
There is also a special bonus link right below this episode where I've collected a whole bunch of extra goodies from Dana. There is the original trailer with her mom's photo, her solo wedding episode with some wedding photos, Dana’s on-camera work and voiceover work, some information about the mother's grave retreat, as well as recommendations from Dana: Peter Sagal’s episode and his book, Make Noise by Eric Nuzum, and All There Is, a new podcast by Anderson Cooper.
There's also something that I'm leaving for you. After we hit “stop record” or kind of closed out the episode, Dana and I kept talking. And there's some special moments there between two friends and two collaborators that I think if this conversation resonated with you, you want to know a little bit more about me as well as Dana, make sure you check that out.
And of course, if you're so inspired, go check out DanaBlack.org. It is not messy and janky like she says. It is a beautiful home and fit for the multi-hyphenate that she is.
Now before you move on, I need one small favor, take just a few seconds to rate and review this podcast go to RateThisPodcast.com/tonyhowell. It'll walk you through the whole thing.
And while you're there, you might want to check out our past conversations and subscribe because there are just a few more super incredible changemakers coming your way this season.
Thank you so much for listening. We talked about it in this episode. An hour of your time is so valuable, so thank you for sharing that with us. Now I ask you, just like Dana, to go out there and use your work to change the world.
I hope you and I get to have a conversation about that very soon.