Several weeks ago, I heard from a Make It Mighty Ugly reader named Hannah who’s started a daily photography project. In one of her first blog posts about it, she included a photo of a note she found on her morning run. We had a short exchange about that note, and imagine my surprise and delight to find it tucked into the letter she sent me (sending me a letter is the final exercise in the book). It’s the kind of thing that invites imaginary scenarios. Did it fall out of the sender’s pocket? Did the recipient roll their eyes and discard it? The first bit is in quotation marks – is it a quote from something, or is the writer just not super into proper punctuation? Is this sort of thing a daily ritual for the couple, or a super meaningful one-off love note?
Anyway, in addition to a pair of earrings she made (thank you so much, Hannah!) she included some of her creative fears in her letter, and she gave me her blessing to write about them. As someone who struggles to make sense of internal contradictions, I totally relate:
“I hate to fail, so I quit sometimes right after I begin. I hate ends, I’ve realized. I hate having to buy more shampoo or folding laundry. It’s that final completion! That’s my ugly! However, the pleasure of all tasks done is relaxing. Somehow I do get a rush out of procrastination. If I always have something left to do, I’ll always have something to do.”
Do you ever feel uncomfortable finishing a project, because then you’ll have nothing to do? I’ve always felt so excited about beginning something new, this is something I’ve never really struggled with. But I sure do understand the struggle of enjoying opposite things, like when Hannah dreads completing tasks yet also enjoys the relaxation of having done them all. I love both order and mess, spontaneity and solid planning.
What about you? Do you experience a tension between two extremes you enjoy? Do you dread finishing a project? How do you strike a balance?
The very last exercise in Make It Mighty Ugly is one I actually started here on the blog well over a year ago. It was so interesting, and seemed to be so effective, that I put it in the book.
That exercise is to write me a letter. And in that letter, to name your creative fears, discomforts, demons. Name them, shove them into an envelope, and send that envelope to me. I, in turn, receive your letter. And in reading your letter, I become one other human being in the world who knows what plagues you. Who will, by virtue of my very existence, make you less alone. And then, if it’s cool with you, I might write about what you wrote (anonymously or not, your choice); or destroy your letter and never tell another soul about it.
This week, I received my first letter since the book came out.
Keetha wrote about something I’ve struggled with pretty much forever (in no small part because I once received the worst [well-meaning] advice ever, which I’ll write about another time), and I’m very grateful that she said I could write about her letter, because I have a feeling this will strike a chord with many of you, too. Here’s what she wrote:
My fear is that I let my fear stop me. This morning I’ve felt sickening, heart-racing anxiety: I have a free day to work on fun, holiday mixed media projects that I’m excited about! And can’t wait to dive into – except the fear that I will let myself down. Unrealized potential, ideas not acted on, dormant creativity, not ever trying because of fear – that is my fear.
I know, right? I honestly don’t think I made headway with my very similar fear until this year. In fact, I’m pretty sure the act of writing MIMU is what finally got me into a mindset that allows me to pretty much always start something I’m excited about. I used to be total shit at doing things I was excited about. It was as if the excitement was just too much. I was sure I’d screw up the act itself, so I’d just allow myself to bask in the excitement while not actually doing the exciting thing. I was constantly twisted up about this. It’s part of why I got into the habit of making audacious proclamations publicly – then at least I’d feel like I had to do a thing, you know?
The nail in the coffin of this habit I used to have of not making things has been #yearofmaking. I worked through so much of my own crap writing the book, that when I had the idea to make something every day, I was just sitting there ready to take all that work I’d done and, uh, put it to work. Keetha’s letter made me realize that my ugly voice pretty much never chimes in about this anymore. He never tells me I shouldn’t bother because I won’t be able to create something that even remotely approaches my idea of it. He doesn’t tell me my time would be better spent continuing to daydream instead of just doing. Nope. I’ve quieted him, at least on this one topic.
Now, when I have a free afternoon and a hankering to spend a few hours making something, I make it. I can’t stress enough how freaking awesome that feels.
If you’re reading this, Keetha, drop me a note sometime and let me know if you’ve made headway confronting this fear, eh? I’m rooting for you!
I’m going to close out this week-long money conversation by repeating a quote from Rachael’s letter, because it’s a doozy.
Why does it feel so crazy, stupid and reckless to be an artist? (Is that a real job?) I could be working full-time somewhere, earning good money, saving for the future, and probably unhappily trapped in an office.
Let’s have a party in the comments, shall we? What is a real job?
I’ve watched myself come a long way from the early days of my career, when I’d shuffle my feet and look sideways and mumble, “I run a crochet website,” when someone would ask me what I did for work. I have a less concrete answer these days, since I do a bunch of different things, but whatever answer I decide to share comes out in my normal voice, and I make eye contact. I usually say I’m a writer or an editor. And I’ve been very proud of myself these last few weeks, because when people ask what’s new with me, I get straight to the point and say I’m writing a book. What’s it about? Eye contact: “It’s about creativity and fear and failure, and how we can embrace those scary things to have more fun and make more stuff.”
I think the reason this “real job” question comes up in crafts and art is that we often feel inclined to shuffle our feet and look away when we talk about our work. We’re inclined not to presume that what we do is important, or good, or valuable. We’re inclined to assume people need us to justify what we do. Many of us have no formal credentials. Hell, many of us have no formal resume. Enough. Let’s have it out in the comments – what is a real job?
Near the end of Rachael’s letter, she wrote a sentence I’m going to break into two parts. “I can’t imagine being anything else but an artist…” – to be honest, I can’t imagine Rachael being anything else but an artist, either. Isn’t it wonderful, to love what you do so much you can’t imagine doing anything else?
“… but maybe it’s just not meant to be right now.” I invoke my disbelief in fate.
Time for a straw poll! If you’re self-employed or run your own creative business, leave a comment and tell me if you a) work from home (even if you have a home studio that’s a dedicated space) or b) work away from home (whether in a shared studio or your own space). Please also indicate whether you live in a big city, a small city, a suburb, or a rural area.
I want to know, because Rachael brings up how the high cost of living in Vancouver affects her business. It’s a huge issue, and one we might not consider in the context of business expenses like those I mentioned in my last post, but it most certainly affects our decisions about business-related spending. So many of us work from home that we can overlook how expensive that can be. When rent is through the roof, so to speak, we may end up trying to run our business out of a cramped apartment, without adequate space for storing inventory or getting into a healthy workflow. (Another not-so-hidden cost is health insurance, for example. There’s no way I’d take as many business risks as I do if I didn’t live in Canada with reliable, affordable health care, that’s for sure.)
I’d like to do some swearing about Vancouver and its crushingly expensive cost of living. I don’t think I can continue to thrive here, even though Vancouver is where I’ve become the artist I am today. Why does it feel so crazy, stupid and reckless to be an artist? (Is that a real job?) I could be working full-time somewhere, earning good money, saving for the future, and probably unhappily trapped in an office.
Sometimes, in our most cynical moments, Greg and I joke that we could sell our house and live like kings in Fargo. (I don’t know why it’s always Fargo.) Vancouver is wicked expensive. For reasons not worth blogging about, we’re exceptionally lucky when it comes to our cost of living, but most people – office-job professionals included – struggle to live in this city affordably. And certainly Vancouver isn’t the only area like this. San Francisco, New York and Boston come to mind.
We’ve stopped joking about me ditching my projects to work at Starbucks, because I think we’ve both come to realize that any sort of day job that doesn’t involve me mostly working on my own shenanigans would end up in a pile stress and contagious misery.
I have a hard time working from home sometimes, especially lately when there’s a toddler in the house with his babysitter. We’re hoping (hoping so very much) to finally get a daycare placement this summer. But anyway.
For a stretch of time when I was working full-time as a magazine editor, I rented a desk in a shared office. In the end, I didn’t love the space and it just wasn’t worth the $300/month in rent. Though I’ve toyed with getting myself out of the house in a formal way more recently, I find I can neither justify the expense nor find a great space I could afford that’s both not aimed at a tech startup and not in a state of disrepair. And I certainly find I can’t justify the time for even a short commute when we’re paying for childcare and I could just stay home.
You might be thinking that losing the commute time would be worth it, and it might be if I could find a great place that’s not too far away. But I haven’t been able to, so home I stay, with a daily prayer to the daycare gods.
Obviously, I have no answers to the question of how to balance the expense of a living (and working) environment with the need to make a profit. In many ways, I am committed to staying in Vancouver simply because this is where we’ve made our home. I’m a city girl, and though money would be a much less of a stressful issue if we moved somewhere with a lower cost of living, we just wouldn’t be as happy. And like Rachael, I’ve become the creator I am here. Not that I’ve felt particularly inspired by Vancouver in a creative way, but my experiences here – socially, as an expat, as a parent, as a crafter and creative professional – have shaped me, and they certainly influence my work.
So I post this as an open question to you, crafters, makers, artists and writers: How do you make it work, living in your expensive city while trying to make your inconsistent income go as far as possible? Got any tricks up your sleeve the rest of us could benefit from? How do you continue to keep the awful lure of a steady, soul-sucking paycheck from winning you over?
That voice in your head. Maybe it’s your college roommate who eventually got her MBA. She’s whispering and she won’t shut up. “You have to spend money to make money.”
You know, that voice.
The kicker is, you know she’s right. From the most basic business cards to the most elaborate craft-fair setups, being in business costs money. Graphic design, web design, copywriting, editing, photography, PayPal fees, Etsy fees, credit-card processing fees, printing, advertising, application fees, professional development courses, networking events, conference attendance, packaging, shipping, travel expenses, marketing.
Rachael mentioned this issue in her letter in merely a passing fashion, which I mentioned in my previous post. But I wanted to highlight it here, in case you haven’t thought about this explicitly. One of the more daunting aspects of struggling to make money is the expense involved. We can wing it to an extent – say, by making our own business cards from paper scraps and our own art, or taking to the tool shed as much as possible, but we can’t negate the expenses entirely.
Which can leave us stuck, because who has money to spare? No one. So we keep on keeping on, feeling more and more like we have no options.
On my less risk-averse days, when I’m excited about an idea and I’m convinced it’s a winner, I may spend the money anyway. For small things like registering a URL – which, for example, I did within an hour of coming up with Mighty Ugly – I don’t give it a second thought. For big things, like hiring a graphic designer to make postcards for that project and then having them printed, I may mull on it for a long time before deciding I can’t get away with not spending the money. On those days, I force myself to choose between continuing with a project as a labour of love that gets no more money from me, or with spending the money and kicking my business-generation mojo into high gear. (And then I print as many postcards as possible for the amount I can afford, in case that mojo ain’t what I thought it was. I’ve been using the metric tonne of Might Ugly postcards for years, even though I’d like to completely redo them but can’t afford to.)
Tell me, what kinds of money-related growing pains have you encountered recently (or are you struggling with right now)? How have you come to best navigate this thorny issue? Are there projects you’ve had to let go because they were just too expensive to continue?
the colour of your money, by penguincakes on Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa licensed)
I got a letter from paper artist Rachael Ashe a few weeks ago, and her letter struck so many chords that I’m going to write a series of posts about it. I think every single one of us who is trying to make a living through creative work will relate intimately with at least one, if not all, of the things Rachael expressed.
I’ve gotten to know Rachael over the last few years as part of the Vancouver crafts/art scene and Vancouver Mini Maker Faire. She’s been working hard to make art her full-time job, and in her letter she vented about money. Here’s one of the things she wrote:
“I need money to cover the basic costs of living, but also to invest in things to help me grow beyond what I’m doing now. I feel so guilty having [my partner] carry the two of us alone, and I feel my lack of monetary contribution to our situation holds us back in so many ways. Money. Money. Money. Goddamn you, money.”
Burmese money turned into art, by -AX- on Flickr (CC-by-nc licensed)
First, damn straight, it takes money to be in business. I find this one of the most daunting aspects of business, really, though I also think we, as DIYers, are better situated to work around a lack of money than less crafty entrepreneurs, to some extent. But that’s not the part I want to focus on. Rachael’s guilt is the same guilt I’ve felt on and off for the duration of my fourteen years with my partner.
When I first met Greg back in ’99, I was a grad student. As a grad student in the great state of Delaware, I lived on about $14,000 a year, without too much help from my parents. Greg, on the other hand, was fresh off his Master’s degree with a shiny new professional job. He lived like he was a student, though, so he was essentially swimming in money as far as I could tell.
I remember one night a few weeks after we started dating, Greg suggested we go see a movie. We’d already seen a movie that month, so I told him my entertainment budget had been spent and suggested we rent a movie or do something else instead. He told me he’d pay. I refused. Then he told me that he was going to go see the movie in the next few days with or without me, but he really wanted to see it with me, so I should just let him pay for me to go because it would make him happy (and it would make me happy, too).
It was in no way the last time we’ve had words about money, but in many ways that exchange has characterized the fourteen years we’ve shared finances. I’ve always made far less money than he makes (ETA: except for a couple of years when he was back in school and I worked full-time as a magazine editor; the financial contribution I made to our family during that time was extremely important to me), and I’ve always wanted to contribute significantly more than I can while continuing to do the work I love (as opposed to work I’d hate that would make me miserable way more money).
money flowers, by kolix on Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa licensed)
Greg has taught me a very valuable lesson. It’s taken me all these years to properly put my finger on it, and Rachael’s letter really helped me do that.
Money can’t buy us happiness, but we sure can allow money make us miserable.
The truth is that Greg and I are a great match. He’s ordered and structured and caring and kind; I’m disorganized, spontaneous, enthusiastic and sarcastic. We share values that allow us to navigate life together in a surprisingly successful manner, and that allow us to work out our differences in a relatively productive way (with the usual assortment of epic fights and breakdowns).
It’s important to me that he’s happy, and it’s important to him that I’m happy. Though the former is something I consider to be obvious, the latter is something I need to remind myself of constantly. He reminds me of it constantly.
He knows I value money and my contribution of it to our family. I don’t take for granted that he continues to make far more money than I do.
The major lesson he’s taught me is that it’s okay. This is the life we’ve built for ourselves, together. The security he provides does not make me feel less ambitious about making more money, though I do still occasionally battle guilt about it. In many ways, he’s a business partner to me. When I need to put a lot of heavy work into a project that won’t be able to pay me until the work is long done (like with CrochetMe.com years ago, or like now with The Holocene), we talk about how our family might be affected and we hash out whether we can take the risk. We talk it through. If I’m not fully convinced about the project, there’s no way I can convince him. But when I am convinced, he knows it and he supports it.
I continue to work hard to accept that support without adding qualifications that make it more difficult. I work hard not to feel guilty about having his support. I work hard to use that support to contribute not only financially to our family, but emotionally. When I’m happy I share it.
Money, by 401(K) 2013 on Flickr (CC-by-nc licensed on Flickr)
And when I’m happy, I work best. I have more and clearer and bigger ideas. I connect better with other people. I’m more inclined to take risks and to seek out new work. What I’m trying to say here is that when I’m happy I make more money, and I enjoy making it.
So I’m going to pose a question to Rachael, and to you, dear reader: Can you forgive yourself the guilt, even for a short time? Can you give yourself a week or a month to see how your mind and your creativity function without it? Do you think you’ll see your plans change in that time? Do you think your relationship to money might be affected?
I ask these questions knowing my answers to them, but I don’t ask them rhetorically and I don’t ask them to be obnoxious. What do you think? Do you feel the guilt Rachael and I continue to struggle with? How do you work around it?