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Building A Creative Life

Building A Creative Life


For many years, I thought of my maker projects and my writing as separate. More than that, actually,  I got into a bad habit of thinking of them as oppositional — as if my making was only a kind of procrastination or evasion from writing. I felt guilty about it. As if spending time in my garden, or putting up a batch of jam, or making a shirt, or learning to knit socks was somehow betraying my “real” creative work, which was supposed to be writing novels and essays.

About a year ago I got really interested in the notion of creative practice. This is quite a common idea in the art world, but writers don’t tend to think in these terms — or at least not the writers I came up with. Process was fine, but the point was publication. Where you were published was frequently not as important as the fact of publication, especially when I was still in academia. And there was a hierarchy. “Little” magazines at the bottom, then real magazines — the ones who paid — and at the top, publishing a book. That I published a book with a commercial publisher was sort of a big deal back in the day. But as the years have stretched on, and I haven’t managed to finish another book manuscript, I’ve gone through many cycles of despair and reinvention, then gotten stuck and have done it all over again.

It was in those down times about a year ago when a manuscript I’d been struggling with had come apart, again, that I discovered a group of knitters in the UK who were building these really vibrant networks of creativity. They had podcasts and book projects and were starting their own lines of yarn and making patterns and researching the history of knitted textiles in the British Isles in ways that seemed enormously exciting. Kate Davies, for example, who writes these beautifully-researched books on Fair Isle knitting, or yoked sweaters or haps … books that include not only terrific patterns, but these essays about the history of these handicrafts, and the women who made them, and the economic conditions that helped turn these things into the luxury items of their days. Turns out that Kate has a PhD in 18th Century History, and an academic career cut short by a stroke she suffered in her early 30s. She reinvented herself entirely — took the thing she loved doing, and in exploring it deeply has built a truly creative life for herself, as well as a business. Felicity (Felix) Ford is another one I’ve been slightly obsessed by, because again, she has that combination of true enthusiasm and academic and artistic expression that just makes my heart sing. Also known as Knitsonik, Felix is a sound artist and knitwear designer who wrote the absolutely astonishing Knitsonik Stranded Colorwork Sourcebook which is my very favorite kind of how-to book. There are patterns, several really wonderful ones, but just as my most beloved cookbooks are a collection of recipes in service of teaching a person how to really cook — how to think about flavors, how to acquire the techniques needed to make those flavors and textures happen, how to set you free to truly cook on your own, Felix’s Knitsonik Stranded Colorwork Sourcebook is all about learning to really see, and then to translate what you see and love into patterns that can be knit into any number of garments.

I am not a particularly visually adept person. My mother is a talented visual artist who can draw and paint, but that’s never been my strong suit. And what I loved about Felix’s book is that it is rooted in place, which has always been the source from which my writing begins. The book is a workbook of sorts, leading the reader through several of Felix’s projects where she takes elements of the landscape that she loves — whether it be the brickwork of her hometown Reading, or an ancient stone wall, or the meandering highway over which she commuted to a University job — and rethinks them as colors and patterns that can be translated into the medium she loves, knitting. I was set on fire by this book. I was SO excited about the way it had me looking at colors, and patterns, and the contrast between colors and patterns — every morning for weeks. My morning dog walks took on a heightened sense of thrill as I tried to translate the shapes and colors of the mountain ranges, the sky, and my beloved creek bottom where we walk every morning with it’s willows and bullrushes and blue heron and cows. And while I’ve yet to knit anything from it, that it opened up my creative mind again, got me thinking and seeing and simply being excited about creating again — that was enough. (Although I do have plans for a very special pattern I want to develop using her methods.)

Felix has a terrific Knitsonic podcast, which seems to be on hiatus at the moment as she works on a project for the Dickens museum on Catherine Dickens, Charles’s long-suffering wife who he both divorced and erased late in life. And that podcast led me to a few others that also felt really inspirational — KnitBritish and A Playful Day in particular — podcasts that take on the big question of how do we build creative lives that will also support us? They’re women telling stories about making up their own lives, and interviewing others who have done the same — built creative businesses that not only support them, but feed their creative practices.

All this has been in my head this year as I’ve been planning my Great Leap into Freelancing. I have a stack of writing projects, and for the first time in decades, I’m sending things out. For ages every manuscript submission felt life-or-death to me, as if it was the Final Judgement on whether or not I was any good at this. Maybe its getting to that age where a woman famously doesn’t give a shit anymore what other people think, maybe it’s having a solid footing underneath me for the first time ever — a settled domestic life, a safe home — or maybe it’s just a very belated sense of confidence in my own talent, but sending things out no longer seems like such a big deal. The next challenge is going to be figuring out how to find paid work that isn’t so divorced from my creative life as that I’ve been doing these past fifteen years or so. It was a deliberate choice on my part — I wanted a job that didn’t creep into those creative parts of my brain because I thought it would compete. And perhaps I was right, or right for what I needed at the time. Now I’m in a different space, a space of really exciting creative brainstorming. The three things I love: making, wilderness, and writing are all right here — and my goal is to bring them into some sort of constellation that allows me to pay my bills while doing good work — work that brings creative energy into not only my world, but becomes an expression of that energy out into the universe. I have no idea how I’m going to accomplish this, but the challenge has me waking up mornings with a head full of plans, plans that it looks like I’ll have time now to start putting into place. It’s so exciting. Terrifying, but exciting.

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New Directions at LivingSmall

New Directions at LivingSmall

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what to do with LivingSmall. While the practical posts on cooking, gardening and chickens will, by no means be going away, the focus will be shifting a little bit.

There’s been a lot of discussion chez LivingSmall about the recession/depression, and how it’s not going away. Every morning, the newspapers are full of stories about “recovery” and no one seems to be discussing the fact that we can’t go back, we can’t have a recovery that is predicated on the same boom-and-bust cycles fueled by easy credit and that aren’t backed by anything real, in particular, by jobs that pay a living wage. It’s not just manufacturing jobs that are disappearing anymore. At Cisco, all of us in tech writing were watching our jobs go to India, or Ireland, or Israel, or anyplace else where people had decent English skills and lower wages (and usually government health care).

I’m also interested in the national conversation about what exactly constitutes work. I’ve wanted to freelance for ages, so I’m pretty excited about not having a “job” anymore. However, I find the national discussion about what constitutes work, and what constitutes a job very disturbing. You would think if we’re trying to reboot our economy, we’d want to create an environment that’s hospitible to small businesses and entrepreneurs, but in fact, we’ve done just the opposite. With the Democrats caving on health care reform, and leaving all of us who are self-employed or working for small businesses hung out to dry, we’re all at greater risk of medical bankruptcy. We can’t buy into unemployment insurance even if we wanted to, and without “employers” we pay 15% Social Security tax instead of the 7.5% one pays when working for an “employer.” All of which was enough to keep me out of the freelancer pool until I was forcibly thrown into it.

And so now what? The big corporations are steadily throwing more and more American workers overboard, credit is tightening, and no one is addressing the reality of what a real recovery might look like. There’s a big opportunity here. We could actually start to rebuild along more sustainable lines. And what intrigues me, and what we’re going to be exploring here some at LivingSmall is — what might that sustainable recovery look like? Is there a real chance for us to think about our lives and livelihoods in a more creative way? Can we create a discussion about changing our lifestyles that posits a world in which less stuff leads to more freedom for us all? Readers? What’s your experience been? How has the recession inspired you to make changes you’d maybe resisted, but that you’re finding fulfilling?



One of the things we’ve been discussing a lot chez LivingSmall, is the fact that this “recession,” which looks a lot more like a depression to those of us in the self-employment pool, isn’t going away. Every morning in our local paper, we read ridiculous AP stories predicting that “the recovery” is just around the corner, that all we have to do is what? clap our hands and hope that like Tinkerbelle, the economy will return to the roaring days of easy credit, inflated housing prices, and excessive consumer consumption? Hasn’t anyone noticed that there aren’t any jobs, that we don’t actually make anything in the US anymore, and that the finance wizards on Wall Street have turned all their vaunted “intelligence” to gaming the system? We can’t go back, but there seem to be very few people thinking about what a sustainable economy could look like, an economy that will sustain an actual middle class, an economy that provides actual jobs for actual people.

Looks like Joseph Stiglitz has noticed … his new book is reviewed in this morning’s New York Times and it seems promising. I might have to go put in a request at my local library since without a job, I’m not really buying new hardcover books these days.

Books of The Times – Joseph E. Stiglitz’s Skepticism for Obama’s Fiscal Policy – Review –

Mr. Stiglitz, a member of Mr. Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers and later chief economist for the World Bank, frequently criticized the Treasury secretary at the time, Robert E. Rubin, and his successor Lawrence H. Summers, for their deregulatory policies; in these pages, he questions President Obama’s decision to make Mr. Summers his chief White House economic adviser and to name Timothy F. Geithner (who worked under Mr. Summers and Mr. Rubin in the Clinton administration) treasury secretary.

Obama chose this team,” says Mr. Stiglitz, who writes with what sounds like a touch of sour grapes, “in spite of the fact that he must have known — he certainly was advised to that effect — that it would be important to have new faces at the table who had no vested interests in the past, either in the deregulatory movement that got us into the problem or in the faltering rescues that had marked 2008, from Bear Stearns through Lehman Brothers to A.I.G.

Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy

Unemployment, Week One

Unemployment, Week One

So far, so good on the unemployment thing. While it’s never ideal to be the one voted off the island, I find I don’t miss the job at all — I miss the people I worked with, but I don’t miss being chained to my desk from eight in the morning until six at night; I don’t miss the anxiety of thinking someone might send you an instant message while you were getting a cup of tea and then decide you’re slacking; I don’t miss being treated as an incompetent by my manager, and I’m beginning to get over the numbness that has been plagueing my right arm and shoulder for the past couple of months.

This week, frankly, I’ve been sleeping a lot. This feels a lot like the summer after I finished my Phd exams, when I slept, read plotty, unchallenging books (that summer it was the Raj Quartet, this summer it’s the Inspector Montalbano mysteries by Andrea Camelleri), and just went into recovery mode.

The first thing I did last week was to re-organize my office. Out went the big desk that was too high, and which I think was a major contributing factor to the arm numbness. Up from the basement came the ugly-but-comfy armchair and the tilty table from Levengers (really great when I have to type in quotes from books for the new freelance gig). Also up from the basement came my wee desk from Target — when I took the finials off the bottom of the legs, it’s exactly the right midget height for me to sit in a chair with my feet on the floor and type. I pulled out my old corkboard and tacked a few note cards with article ideas up, and purged all the stuff from my office bookshelves that I’m not going to need anymore. A vase of flowers from the garden, and I’m set. A new office for a new era.

I also managed to get a lot of things done that I’ve been working too much to address. I got the snow tires off my car (well, it did snow in June, but not that much). I washed my kitchen floor. I weeded the vegetable garden, picked the peas and the favas and planted some endives for fall. I rebuilt the chicken coop (a proper post on that later) so the chickens can’t get out.  Chuck and I went for a 10 mile hike. I went up to my Milk Lady’s farm and relocated the rooster (he’s cock of the walk in the hen house apparently — very much the new guy in town and loving it) and bought some hens from her. I went big-grocery shopping and went to Costco and got some acupuncture for the bad shoulder. I took the dogs swimming in the Yellowstone and then for a short hike (Owen’s robo-leg held up great). I got my hair cut.

And yesterday I finally got back to my new office, finished up one freelance project, got started on another, and figured out how to re-write the opening section of the novel I now have no excuse for not finishing. A week off was delightful, but now I can hear the clock ticking. I have six months to figure out this next part. Six months to finish my novel, and drum up enough freelance projects to keep the little ark afloat. Six months minus one week, and counting …

Layoff — Putting LivingSmall to the Test

Layoff — Putting LivingSmall to the Test

Well, it finally happened — the layoff genie landed on my shoulder last Thursday. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, however, it was quite a shock to log in for that meeting and see an unfamiliar name on the call — an HR person. Nine years I’ve been at that job, and frankly, the past several have been pretty unpleasant. But it was a good job in a bad economy, and so I stuck it out until they decided that they don’t need editors any more, or they don’t like remote workers, or whatever corporate algebra goes into deciding who to vote off the island. Luckily it’s a very large company, and the severance package was quite generous. Also in my favor — I’d seen it coming and I’d landed some freelance work that I think will, eventually, support me.

But wow. Time to put everything I know about living small to the test. I’m getting more hens tonight — the rooster is going off to live on an actual ranch (not the proverbial ranch where all of our old dogs went when we were children), so there’s another source of protein out of the backyard. And last week we saw an ad in the paper for a whole pig, cut, wrapped, butchered with hams and bacon cured for a really reasonable price, so this afternoon I ordered a pig.

While getting laid off was a shock, it reminded me that I moved here with the intention of getting out of that job eventually. I knew that if I wanted to write, I’d need to find a place where I could afford to live on less money. Unlike some of my California co-workers, I have a really reasonable mortgage, and I’m not upside down on my house. My car is paid off, and while I owe more on the credit cards than I like, and while I’ve still got that student loan from my PhD, I’m in pretty good shape. My goal was always to downsize, and while I had hoped it wouldn’t come so soon, it does come as something of a relief. I was unhappy in that job, but it was too good to quit. Being laid off means I have six months to finish my novel, build up a freelance career, pay things off, and make the transition. I’ve never had six months support without a job in my life.

So like I said. Time to get serious about living small. Time to get back to what Gary Snyder calls the “real work.” Time to dust off the writer/artist/hippie I cast aside when I took that good solid sensible corporate job. And so far, it’s been really lovely — I’m sleeping again. Chuck and I went for a really long hike yesterday. I re-organized my office so I can reclaim it for my own work. I printed out the poor neglected novel and figured out a thing to make the first part better (which unfortunately means I have to rewrite it again, but oh well.) I have some freelance work on deck, which looks both interesting and reasonably lucrative. So we’ll see. In eighteen months I could be really regretting this, but for now, it all looks sort of hopeful.

Knitting as Antidote for Frantic Busy-ness

Knitting as Antidote for Frantic Busy-ness

I’m about to go log in to my job at the Big Corporation, the job that I’m hoping will see me through whatever impending financial doom is rising on the horizon, the job that isn’t my dream job, but which I like nonetheless. As much as I’d love to be able to write full time, it’s good to have a real job, especially for a writer — it keeps me engaged with the world outside my little circle of writers and artists and handymen and hunters and ranchers trying to make a go of it selling milk and eggs and wool. There was a piece in the NY Times a couple of weeks ago about telecommuters fighting off loneliness that I found interesting because it’s not really a problem I run into — for one thing, I’m weirdly happy to spend enormous amounts of time alone, and for another, I work with a group of people spread out between San Jose, Miami, Galway Ireland, Seattle and here in Montana. We’re all so electronically connected to one another at my job, that I don’t really feel like I’m alone all day. Between our group instant messaging program, email, and web-based meetings it’s hard to feel disconnected. In fact, when it gets as busy as it’s been the past few weeks, it’s amazing how fried and frazzled and pecked-at a girl can wind up feeling after another 10 hour day in her own front room.

And so, I’ve taken up my long-neglected knitting project again. Knitting and Netflix — a couple of hours working on the sweater that I’ve knit, pulled out, and knit again so many times now (it’s taken me a long time to figure out how to count stitches and rows, what I really like is knitting the big swatches of body parts, not the v-neck or sleeves where you have to pay attention). After a long day of emails and fires that need to be put out and very long technical documents that need to be edited in too little time there’s something essentially calming about putting in a movie, something that’s going to run continuously for an hour and a half or two hours without the interruption of commercials, and knitting. It gives you something to do with your hands. It keeps a girl from surfing the internet aimlessly. It makes you concentrate a little — not as much as working, but just enough to smooth out those jangly places that are left from the day’s work.

And who knows? This time, I might actually get this sweater finished. Considering it’s been ten below for days now, a nice, warm, raspberry-colored sweater would be a good thing.

Tempest in a Linen Closet

Tempest in a Linen Closet

Via Bookslut this morning: “You know, I thought that Leslie Bennetts was being a little hysterical when she called the reaction to her book The Feminine Mistake a ‘witch hunt.’ Then I scrolled down to the comments section.”

I was raised by women who got left holding the bag, by a mother and a grandmother who got stuck trying to support children after having believed they’d never be responsible for the financial end of things. It wasn’t pretty (see below on serial financial disaster). I knew, in my bones, from the time I was about ten that if I wanted kids, I was going to have to be prepared to support them and to support myself. I’ve worked since I was fourteen, more often than not at two jobs, and even at that it took me until I was 35 to make more than about 20k a year. I came late to financial security, and it’s by far the biggest thing I’ve accomplished in my life. And so it was always an astonishment to me that so many women I knew were not only willing, but eager, to trade in their professional and financial independence and rely on a husband to support them and their children.

There must be a reason that this subject spurs such over-the-top reactions from women who have chosen to stay home (see the comments linked to above). The vitriol, the hysteria, the insistence that staying home is the only proper sacrifice a woman can make all seem to me to mask a deep anxiety about this subject. People don’t overreact to things that don’t subconsciously bug them. There was a time in my late twenties when my friends who had married young, who had never had a real profession, who had kids young, spent a lot of time telling me how selfish I was for going to graduate school, for not marrying, for insisting that my own life was meaningful. It was a very tiresome period.

I’m not married and I don’t have kids. I’m not thrilled about either of those situations — especially the kid part — but that seems to be the way the chips fell this time around. God knows I’ve certainly spent a lot of my adult life caretaking family members in the most typical feminine ways — and perhaps if I’d wound up with a husband making a lot of money, I too would have been tempted to stay home with the babies. They’re interesting, even when they’re boring, and they’re only little once. But I live in the land where all what ifs are possible — where people die and jobs are lost and where the safety net is thin. I don’t think it’s irresponsible of Leslie Bennetts to remind women that while staying home is an option that might provide a lot of personal pleasure, and it’ll certainly get you plenty of social approval these days, there are real consequences. You will not be able to go back to work and make the kind of money your peers are. You might not be able to get a job at all if you’re older, if you have kids that will get sick and need to be picked up at odd hours and who will make you sort of a pain to employ. Is this right? Should we live in a world where employers support family life? Of course, but we don’t.

If women want to be treated as adults, we must also carry our part of the financial burden. Which doesn’t preclude staying home for a while when the kids are little — day care is expensive, sometimes more than one might make at a crappy job one doesn’t love. But it needs to be a reasoned decision, made by both parents, and there needs to be contingency plans. Life is long, and scary, and unexpected things happen. Seems to me that’s the central message of Bennetts’ book, and the hysterical reaction to her message belies the extent to which we’ve substituted wishful thinking for a realistic assessment of the social cost of dropping out of the professional world.

Patti Smith on the Big Questions

Patti Smith on the Big Questions

On the eve of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Patti Smith, as always, asks all the really interesting questions:

Should an artist working within the revolutionary landscape of rock accept laurels from an institution? Should laurels be offered? Am I a worthy recipient? I have wrestled with these questions and my conscience leads me back to Fred and those like him — the maverick souls who may never be afforded such honors. Thus in his name I will accept with gratitude. Fred Sonic Smith was of the people, and I am none but him: one who has loved rock ’n’ roll and crawled from the ranks to the stage, to salute history and plant seeds for the erratic magic landscape of the new guard …Rock ’n’ roll drew me from my mother’s hand and led me to experience. In the end it was my neighbors who put everything in perspective. An approving nod from the old Italian woman who sells me pasta. A high five from the postman. An embrace from the notary and his wife. And a shout from the sanitation man driving down my street: “Hey, Patti, Hall of Fame. One for us.”

Art. Revolution. Questioning one’s worthiness. Questioning the validity of accolades to begin with — it’s like a message in a bottle from another time when we were all less cynical, less interested in pure celebrity, less liable to equate success with sales figures.

One of the many things I’ve always admired about Patti Smith is that she never seemed to take her iconic stature seriously. She lives in Detroit. In a neighborhood. She raised her kids and went to the store and never fell into the trappings of celebrity that would have been so easy with someone who appeared in all those iconic Mappelthorpe photos (Mapplethorpe — another message in a bottle. Remember the hysteria over that museum show? Remember those flowers? Remember all those gorgeous men, dead now?).

And when the Rock and Roll hall of fame came knocking, she still had the sense to ask “is this a good thing?” I’m glad she’s accepting. I’m glad she’s accepting in the spirit she is. I’m more than glad she’s still out there reminding us to ask the questions.