We need beauty as much as we need food, water and air, whether it’s visual or auditory. Ignoring that fundamental need parches us.
In a time when so many people spend their lives staring at a screen, encountering beauty in real life — a flower, a bird, a sky filled with stars, a painting or piece of music — can be transformative.
We’re lucky to live in a small town — pop. 10,000 — 25 miles north of Manhattan, named one of the nation’s 10 prettiest by Forbes magazine. If you’ve seen the films Mona Lisa Smile, The Preacher’s Wife or The Good Shepherd, (one of my favorites), you’ve glimpsed our handsome main street in each of these, filled with Victorian-era shops and homes.
Our apartment has great views of the Hudson River, tree-tops, acres of sky and clouds. We savor spectacular sunsets and birdsong, butterflies and fireflies in the cool, green dusk.
In New York city, we have access to museums and art galleries and parks, grateful for every bit of it.
Here are some of the things I find beautiful, that nurture and calm me…
Beautiful architecture — this is Union Station in D.C.
Color, design, elegant neo-classical murals — part of the Library of Congress, in D.C.
Every patch of earth, if you kneel down and really look closely, is a tapestry of color, texture, growth and decay
More neo-classical fabulousness — this, a corner of Bryant Park, midtown Manhattan
I’m crazy about textiles — the purple floral is now curtains in our sitting room
Pattern is everywhere! This is in Soho, Manhattan — glass inserts to allow light into a basement of an early building there
Nothing unusual — lawn furniture in autumn — but I love the symmetry of it from above; this at Hovey Manor, Quebec
I love this painted tin wall, one of the shops on our main street in Tarrytown, NY
I love this view — Bucks County, Pennsylvania — out the window of a 1905 farmhouse a friend used to rent
Every year I wait with bated breath for this lilac tree near us to bloom. Swoon!
Nicaragua is the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti — but its wooden houses are amazingly colored and cared for
Where in your daily life does beauty manifest itself?
A collection can be three (or more!) of pretty much anything. Group them together for impact
The large black horse, hand-carved folk art, was found in an antiques shop in Port Hope, Ontario and the little wooden one at auction there. The little metal guy? I can’t remember.
Three of these, the angular ones, we bought in Mexico City, pewter; one is silver plate and one…not sure!
Years of collecting have given me a decent collection of silver and silver-y objects
It’s always tempting to buy cheap stuff because…it’s cheap!
But waiting, saving up and paying a little more for better-quality fabrics, better furniture construction and classic design means you’ll be able to enjoy your things for years, maybe decades.
Classic doesn’t have to mean boring!
I still love the three antique painted rush-seat chairs I sent home from a country auction in Nova Scotia to my then home in Toronto — using them many years later.
Thrift and consignment shops, especially those located in upscale neighborhoods or towns (i.e. drive if necessary!) can be a treasure trove of amazing quality. Craigslist and Ebay, of course, also have a wide range of offerings.
If you know what you’re looking at — (is it a real antique or a reproduction? Oak or maple? Wood or laminate? sterling or silverplate? glass or crystal?) — tag and estate sales are another great source.
Invest in the best-quality framing you can
It forces you to be highly selective once you start using a frame shop, as even the smallest piece can cost $150 for a custom-cut frame.
It’s money well spent to preserve your favorite things, whether a letter from a grandparent or treasured photographic prints (make sure the mat is acid-free and the glass UV-resistant.)
I like the wooden frames from Pottery Barn (on sale!) and Anthropologie has some quirky and charming ones as well; Pier One can be a great source for more ethnic/rustic styles.
Study every room — what shapes are in it, and how does each piece relate to others?
Most furniture is inevitably square (tables, chairs) or rectangular (beds, chests, sofas.)
Before you know it, you’ve filled every room with big fat chunks of stuff, now looking crowded and tedious. Sigh!
Think about including a variety of shapes (ovals? circles?) and scale (large, small?)
Does each room also include a variety of height (chairs, chests, armoires, etc) so your eye moves around it easily?
Make sure you have at least 24 inches between every piece or you’ll always feel hemmed in and irritable as you keep bumping into things.
Our living room — which faces northwest and gets a lot of light — has two mirrors in it; our sitting room has one, and our bedroom has one as well, all decorative.
The mirror pictured above came out of one of my favorite antique shops, in the town of North Hatley, Quebec; it’s clearly Middle Eastern and was filthy…took an hour of Windex and Q-tips to get most of the dust out of all that fretwork! It cost about $225.
A pretty mirror fills a few functions nicely:
1) it fills up a dead wall; 2) it reflects light into and around the room; 3) a lovely frame can add color, interest and texture relating to the rest of the room; 4) you can see yourself!
Of the four mirrors we own, only one was bought new (from Anthropologie); this one. It’s very affordable — $128 — for a lovely and intricately hand-carved wooden frame that feels exotic and vaguely Indian or Celtic.
It now sits on an apple-green wall so there’s a nice contrast between the background and the wood.
The rest came from antique stores.
Several favorite sources for stylish new mirrors include the websites Horchow, Wisteria, and Ballard Designs.
Mirrors are also more versatile than highly-colored artworks, and can easily be moved from room to room as your tastes change.
I’m obsessed with style, the ability to make our home comfortable and memorable, usually on a budget.
Our home is full of books on design, art, art history — and stacks of interior design magazines. I also studied it in the 90s and now teach at my old school, The New York School of Interior Design in Manhattan.
I was lucky to grow up with parents whose visual sense, always, was strong, eclectic and interesting — from Eskimo sculpture to Japanese uki-o-ye prints to faded wool rugs from the Mideast. Mirrored pieces of bright cotton from India, woven shawls from Peru, early silver.
Having studied art and antiques has also helped me recognize good/old things cheaply and quickly when I find one — like the teapot from 1780 I found upstate for $3, (whose exact twin made the cover of House Beautiful.)
Then I married another highly visual man, a career photographer whose own home when we first met was filled with quirky details and strong colors.
Today, 16 years into our marriage, our apartment is a mix of objects old and new, photos and drawings and posters, things and images we’ve collected on our various travels and adventures, from Ontario to Paris to Mexico.
We even bought our hand-made hammered copper bathroom sink in a small town in Mexico — for $30; knowing the exact dimensions we needed allowed us to buy it with confidence, (and bring it home in our suitcase.)
Here are some images and some ideas…
Pick a few colors and start collecting textiles, art and objects that relate to one another
It might be bright yellow or hunter green or pale blue. Once you’ve chosen your palette, your eye will start to see it everywhere and you’ll know it will fit nicely with what you already own.
Breakfast on the balcony — everything in the photo acquired through a mix of retail stores on sale (pillow covers, blue bowls), auctions (vintage blue platter, creamer), antique stores (tablecloth), flea markets (coin silver spoons, blue transferware dish and silverplate cutlery) and on-line sites.
Our main living room colors are sage green, a Chinese red, black and cream, echoed across the sofa, rug, throw pillows, curtains; the bedroom a range of soft blues and greens. The living room and hallways are painted a soft yellow-green (Gervase yellow, Farrow & Ball) and the bedroom the crisp green of a Granny Smith apple.
We live on the top floor, staring at tree-tops — inspiration!
Mix old and new things
If you love clean, simple minimal design, mix in some older elements to soften the feeling of all that metal, plastic and glass.
You can often find gorgeous bits of silver, glass, crystal and porcelain at local thrift and consignment shops for very little money.
A mix of textures helps as well — linen, wool, velvet, cotton.
Brown furniture is currently deeply unfashionable — hence cheap — and often of terrific quality
Flea markets, auction houses, tag and estate sales and thrift and consignment shops are full of this stuff, often inherited.
One of my best finds, a reproduction Pembroke table, (a style with a drawer and two leaves), came out of a consignment shop in Greenwich, CT. It wasn’t super-cheap ($350) but in excellent condition and is light and versatile.
If you really hate a brown piece of furniture, but it’s well-priced and handsome, you can always paint it.
Keep your eyes peeled
You never know where you’ll find just what you’re looking for, and sometimes in the least likely spot.
We recently dropped into West Elm — a national retail brand known for modern pieces — and found, on sale, four metal brackets to hold wall-mounted plants for our balcony. We also scored three faux branches of mountain laurel, for the price of one week’s fresh flowers.
One day, out for lunch in small-town Ontario, we stopped in at antique shop across the road. Boom! The perfect small lamp we needed for a corner of the bedroom, an early ginger jar, in an unlikely shade of gray. (I had a new white linen shade made to fit.)
Five red goblets — $10 — at our local thrift shop. Score!
I found two large wooden storage boxes at a local plant nursery. I’m not sure what they were supposed to be used for, but I stacked them and made them into a side table. A former grain measure (I think!) now holds magazines.
When I needed a lot of fabric, cheaply, I found a couple of printed cotton shower curtains on sale and used them for curtains, a headboard cover and a table cover.
Keep a tape measure handy and use your camera phone
The only way to be sure that a piece of art of furniture is going to fit into your home, (and play nicely with your current belongings), is if you know exactly what dimensions you need.
If you see something you love in a store but aren’t sure, snap images of it from every angle and measure it carefully.
You can have things shipped
Two of my favorite pieces came from very far away — a great vintage Chinese chair I found in New Orleans and shipped home via UPS and a teal armoire (possibly 18th century) no one wanted (!) when I bid by phone on it through a regional auction house I used to visit when I lived in New Hampshire.
Even with the shipping charges, it cost less than a new piece on sale, made in China.
One of my favorite belongings is a photo I found in Sydney, Australia and sent home to wait for me.
Don’t forget the charm, color and texture of live flowers and plants
We keep fresh flowers and/or plants in every room year-round.
Invest in a few frogs (metal and glass holders for floral stems) and some blocks of Oasis (the green foam florists use to make arrangements), and you can use almost any container to make a pretty display.
Nothing is less expensive or as easy to change if you need a new look — and it can be a chair or stool or box, not an entire room.
If a wooden floor is hideous, paint it!
Don’t be terrified, as so many people are, of: 1) using color; 2) choosing the wrong one. There are tremendous design websites all over the internet to help; I like Apartment Therapy.
A few things to consider: 1) what direction does the room face? (north light is colder); 2) how do you want to feel in that room? Revved-up? Soothed? (choose accordingly); 3) remember that the floor and ceiling are also “colors” in themselves; 4) choose the right finish — glossy is a nice touch here and there, but matte finish usually looks more elegant.
Keep it clean and tidy
There’s no point creating a lovely home if it’s dirty, dusty and cluttered.
It’s easy to say…why bother? It’s a rental or a dorm room or I’m only here for a few years.
It’s your life! It’s your home, whether shared or solo.
Let its beauty nurture you, every single day.
There are people who couldn’t care less about how their home looks — but some of them are simply freaked out by the whole idea of decorating or home improvement: Where to start? What to choose? I’m broke, dammit!
Every image, every bit of light and shade I see, can inspire me visually. It might be the symmetry of an allee of trees or the curve of a Moorish arch. It might be the bubbled glass of a 17th century window.
Put down your phone/computer and really look, long and thoughtfully, at the world around you.
It’s difficult to walk down a block here — for me, anyway! — without snapping a photo, or several. Whether it’s a detail or a landscape or the low, slanting winter light, it’s all there…
More Paris images:
No table here is complete without a fresh baguette, chopped into pieces and served in a basket on the table. Butter is only offered at breakfast, often spread along a split baguette, called a tartine. Delicieux!
Even grocery shopping can be elegant! Everyone here wheels their grocery cart along the narrow sidewalks, even if they bought their food at a chain store. These carts come in every possible color and style. I loved the black patent one I saw on the Metro the other day. So much more fun than schlepping 12 bags of plastic by hand…
I never tire of the sense of design here and am irrationally folle de (crazy for) this look using broken tile. This is the bar area of 65 Ruisseau, a great place for (yes, really) a cheeseburger and a beer in Montmarte. And the frites. Sigh.
This is the street in the 7th arrondissement where we stayed the first two weeks, (moving to L’Isle St. Louis later this month.) These cream-colored curving buildings, with their elegant black ironwork, are typical of the more bourgeois neighborhoods. Each building has some lovely design element to delight the eye — a cherub, some inlaid mosaics, carved roses. There are 20 arrondissements, spiralling out from the center, in a snail shape, from the 1st. Like every city, each one has its own character, some with mini-neighborhoods within them as well. The 7th. is staid, elegant, very quiet, a mix of residential, monuments and government buildings. Few tourists, typically, head to the 13th, 14th or 15th, as they are almost exclusively residential and a bit of distance from most of the museums and other attractions.
King Francis 1, who reigned from 1515 to 1547, used the salamander as his personal symbol, perhaps why this golden salamander encircles a stanchion on the Seine…
Love these soft leather cafe chairs — small enough to be easy to move around but so comfortable and chic! Wish we could ship a few of them home.
There is a very large Ferris wheel standing at one side of the Place de la Concorde, 10 euros to ride. It’s a bit windy/freezing when you’re at the very top, (and a little scary!), but ohhhhhh the views. Here is the Garden of the Tuileries, and at the very far end, the Louvre. One one side is the Seine river, on the other, the rue de Rivoli. I took this on Christmas Day, one of the few days here with clear skies and lots of sunshine! You can’t see them, but the pond is circled by olive-green metal chairs in two styles, so you can sit and relax and watch the crowds.
If New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has his way, this sight will soon disappear from Manhattan — horse-drawn carriages. These colors — cream, beige, black and charcoal gray, are so typical of Paris, whether in exteriors, interiors or fashion.
As some of you know, I was a nationally ranked saber fencer in my 30s, a sport I took up when I moved from Canada to New York. I’ve been athletic since childhood — competing in swimming, diving, sailing and other sports, and recreationally playing squash, softball, badminton and skiing, horseback riding, cycling and skating.
But working with a two-time Olympian as my coach forever changed the way I think, behave and react to stressful situations.
Having just finished a 15-week semester teaching college writing and blogging, it became clearer to me once more what useful lessons any creative person can learn from competitive/serious/elite athletes, like:
Pain is inevitable, suffering optional
We’re all facing challenges, whether finding clients, paying our bills, drumming up ideas, collecting late or missing payments, seeking inspiration. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and depressed when it piles up, but much of this is — sadly — quite normal. Knowing that others are facing similar issues, and finding solutions to them, will give you a necessary sense of perspective. We all struggle! Some show it more than others. The most successful, though, are able to pick up and keep going.
Your competitors are fierce, determined and well-prepared — are you?
It’s naive and foolish to think your success is going to happen quickly and smoothly. If it does, cool! Champagne! For most creatives — whether you’re a fine artist, graphic artist, writer, photographer, film-maker — it’s a road filled with people every bit as determined to succeed as you are. Possibly much more so. Find the smartest and toughest mentors possible; take classes and workshops to sharpen your skills; attend conferences to see what everyone else is up to.
A great coach is essential
I would never have considered it possible to compete at a national level were it not for a tough coach who pushed hard and knew exactly what excellence looked like — and what it required to achieve. It’s hard to get up to speed if the only people you turn to for help and advice are all working at the same level as you, or below. Aim high!
Practice, practice, practice
I’m amused by people who say they want to write — but never do. Nor they read. That’s a toughie, really. Athletes spend hours watching footage of themselves and their competitors to analyze what’s working and what’s not. Then they get to work on their weaknesses. It won’t happen if all you do is wish and hope and read blogs about other people succeeding. You have to do it, too. A lot.
Your mind and body need to rest, recover and recharge
In a gogogogogogogo culture, where everyone is always tweeting and trumpeting their latest success — a grant, a fellowship, a new book, a big fat gig — it’s tempting to compare yourself unfavorably and feel you’re falling behind the pack. No matter how hard you practice, train and compete, you also need downtime to rest your mind and body. Take a hooky day. Sleep in. Play with your kids/dog/cat. Take in a matinee or a museum show. Pleasure refreshes our spirits. Rest recharges our minds and bodies.
Stamina is key!
It’s tiring to stay in the game, week after week, month after month, year after year. It’s also difficult to stay if and when you’re weary, fed up, hurting from rejections. Stamina — which includes mental toughness — is often what separates champions from also-rans.
What are your competitors doing better — and how can you do so, too?
No matter your creative field, you need to stay abreast of developments. What new skills do you need to be acquiring? Do you need to find a new teacher?
Someone is always going to lose. Sometimes that’s going to be you
Yes, it hurts! No one likes losing and it can feel like the end of the world when you do. Take it as a testament to the strength and dedication of your competitors.
Is this your best sport?
If things are going badly, no matter how hard you try, maybe this isn’t your game. It can be very painful to admit defeat (or what looks like it) but it might be worth considering if your very best efforts keep producing little satisfaction or success.
Working through pain is simply part of the process
We live in a world that focuses all its energy on winning, happiness and success. But we’re all likely to have down times — illness, lost clients, a period of creative frustration. Knowing it’s all part of the game reminds us of that. A pain-free, disappointment-proof life is usually unrealistic…and resilience a key component of creative success.
Most of us want to create a pretty, tidy and harmonious home, whether you’re living with four room-mates and in college, jammed into your first tiny solo apartment or making sense of a larger home.
It seems like it should be easy, as there are so many resources online now, from Apartment Therapy (which includes houses and is excellent) to Houzz.
But it’s still, for many people, a deeply confusing and overwhelming process: choosing the colors for walls, floors, ceilings, front door, baseboards; selecting the size and shape and color of your sofa and chairs; rugs, lighting, curtains (or blinds? Or none?)…
And most of us have limited time, energy and budgets.
I studied interior design at the New York School of Interior Design in Manhattan and planned to leave journalism to work in that field. I didn’t, but I learned a great deal and it’s reflected in our home, a one-bedroom apartment in a 1960s six-story apartment building north of New York City. We own it, so we have also invested some money in a full renovation of our one very small (5 by 7 feet) bathroom and galley kitchen.
Here, with lots of photos, are some ideas you might find useful as well:
1) Seek inspiration!
It’s really difficult to design a room, let alone a home of any size, without some inspiring ideas about what you like: Modern and sleek? (Read Dwell magazine.) Historic and formal and elegant? (Try Traditional Home.) Cosy and weathered? (the UK version of Country Life.) I don’t use Pinterest, but it’s very useful in this respect. Your local library will also have gorgeous reference books whose images you can photocopy. Here are four magazines I read often, if not monthly, and have for many years. I get tons of great ideas from them, especially about small spaces (European homes are often much smaller), interesting color combinations (like lime green and chocolate brown) and mixed periods, like a super-contemporary lamp over a battered farm table.
2) Group your art
The focus here, on the long (25 foot) wall of our living room, is a vintage photo given to us by a neighbor cleaning out his garage. It’s an amazing image, probably no later than 1905 and possibly from the 1880s, and we were delighted to get it. He also gave us (!) the two lovely smaller pieces to the left of it, both original framed prints. The small images above the photo I found in antiques shops, the egg in Vermont and the dog in New Hope, Pennsylvania. The image at the far right is my own photo of a staircase in an 18th century building on the Ile St. Louis in Paris.
3) Look around your home
in every room, for items that — when placed together — will have an artistic or interesting relationship to one another: frames, mirrors, photos, small objects like a box or an animal or bird. This grouping, in a corner of our living room, includes: a pierced metal lantern with a candle in it, ($12 on sale at Pier One); two small metal birds (our local garden shop); a vintage silk embroidered shawl (local antique shop); a Victorian ceramic vase (Toronto antique shop); two marble bits of statuary ($25, antiques show) and a huge Victorian mirror ($125, Port Hope, Ontario antique shop.) I’ve owned some of these items for decades, but it’s the combination that’s fun: echoing shape, size, color and texture with a mix of scale. I added a small spotlight ($12, Home Depot) for a bit of drama, adding both shadows and reflections in the mirror behind.
4) Customize what you have. We bought this Crate and Barrel armoire many years ago (it’s still available, in a slightly different version, for $1,299), but I hate looking at stuff. Inside the armoire are plates, glasses, serving pieces, candlesticks — a visually exhausting mess. I lined the doors with this charming map-of-Paris print, on linen, which was inexpensive, referenced other Parisian/French elements in the place, and gave us a nice neutral that wasn’t as boring as plain beige would have been.
5) Add unusual and lovely fresh flowers and/or plants. I found this deep, wide metal cachepot for $25 at my favorite consignment shop and have been adding fresh flowers and interesting greenery to it for weeks. I always have fresh flowers and plants in every room, even in the bathroom, as a touch of color and beauty. Really nice on a cold, gray rainy or snow day, especially!
6) Shop often.I don’t mean spend a lot of money or make hasty impulse buys! But every month or so, I treat myself to a visit to a few favorite shops, whether thrift, consignment, garden or Big Box, to see what’s out there. I scored a gorgeous set of red glass goblets at my local thrift shop — $10 for five — recently. Favorite sources include Anthropologie (on sale!) for terrific housewares and linens and flea markets.
7) Think about including textiles in the mix.If you have pets and/or small/messy children, maybe not. But textiles’ colors, textures and patterns, especially vintage pieces– whether a lovely duvet cover, a knitted throw for the sofa, a cover for a chair or table — can add tremendous charm without a lot of cost or taking up precious space. I’ve covered my desk with a 19th century paisley shawl, my corner table with a 19th century silk shawl and my armchair with a 19th century carriage blanket. None were especially costly; try amazon.com or regional/country auction houses for great finds in this department.
8) Upgrade to better quality and design whenever possible.
Unless you’re wealthy and can afford to buy everything you want the very second you want it, you may have to postpone high quality purchases. I recently spent $300, (yes, really), for three new cream-colored silk lampshades. They’re clean, fresh, elegant, and a huge improvement on the cheap crappy ones I was using until I had the spare income to finally upgrade. Even a fresh set of pillowcases or hand towels can make a significantly cheery difference to your space.
9) Visit museums galleries and open houses to see how others have handled space and texture and material. The pro’s know!
10) Use your cellphone camera every day. Whether you see a cool texture on the sidewalk or a colored wall in a store or restaurant that inspires you — or a scene you’d like to frame and display in your home — that little camera will keep your eye fresh.
Here are just a few images I’ve collected in the past year for visual inspiration.
Need help? I can work from photos! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org; $150/hour.
Sometimes work is sheer drudgery, the thing we can’t wait to flee at day’s, week’s or career’s end.
But sometimes, when we’re lucky, it’s pure joy.
A young friend of mine is traveling throughout SouthEast Asia for three months leading tours and photographing it all. She — yes, really! — fell off an elephant, and into the Mekong River in Laos recently. I awoke in suburban New York to her panicked email from the other side of world asking for my husband’s email; (he’s her mentor and a photographer.)
This week I covered three, all held in New York City, where I live — (and my feet are sore!) — interviewing their organizers and some of their many vendors.
The first show, Premiere Vision, brings together 300+ textile, lace, button and zipper manufacturers to meet the people who need their goods to make the clothes we will buy in a year from places like Marc Jacobs or Diesel or Tommy Hilfiger.
However unlikely, I spent 45 minutes at another show discussing…pockets.
As in: the fabric used to line pockets, specifically of jeans and jackets. I loved this pair of shorts, showing how creatively one can use these fabrics.
At PV, there’s a whole section of people selling their designs, some of which I now realize adorn my workout clothing — for $500 or $700 you buy their design outright and can use it in whatever way suits your needs. Another few vendors sell scraps of vintage wallpaper and fabric that end up used for pillows by Crate & Barrel and other major retailers.
As someone obsessed with textiles and a student of design, this is the most paid fun imaginable — getting to see and touch gorgeous fabrics, meet smart, cool designers and see how it all comes together.
And so it arrived — all 4.5 inches of it — and all seven editions:
Have you seen it?
For those of you living beyond the U.S., RH offers one-stop shopping for all manner of weathered, patinated objects, from enormous replicas of German lighting and railway clocks to a wall-hung glowing ampersand. (Do I really want to sleep beside a piece of punctuation?)
The tone is regal, imperial, seigneurial — and the scale of many of the objects and furniture designed for people who inhabit extremely large homes and estates. Their catalog named “small spaces” offers tableaux named for a Chelsea penthouse and Tribeca loft, each of whose entry point is about $2 million, in cash.
It’s exhaustingly aspirational, and references abound to “landed gentry” and “boarding school”, clearly meant to appeal to people who have experience of neither. (As Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary said, witheringly, to her self-made suitor, Sir Richard Carlisle: “Your lot buys things. Mine inherits them.”)
What to make of it all?
1) Fly into shopping frenzy, wanting allofitrightnow!
2) Read the descriptions in wonder and dismay:
“Crafted with Italian Berkshire leather…” — it’s an ice bucket, people. And it’s $199.
3) Sneer at the hopeless addiction to more stuff it inculcates and rewards
4) Dog-ear a few of the pages, however guiltily, because some of it — yes — is really gorgeous, like this bed, oddly featured in the baby and child catalog.
5) Wonder why our possessions are deemed “treasured” and whether or not they even should be; (see: Buddhist teachings and the ideal of non-attachment)
6) Consider attending an auction to watch the detritus of a hundred other lives, wondering when this stuff will end up there, too
7) Might children raised in these formal and fully-designed rooms, amid thousands of dollars worth of wood and linen and velvet, emerge into the real world of independence and employment with overly hopeful notions of pay and working conditions? Let alone college dorm facilities?
8) If a baby projectile vomits or poops or pees onto the immaculate washed linen and velvet beds, chairs and cribs shown here, how elegant will they really look (or smell)? Much as I love the idea of refined aesthetics (not pink or plastic everything), this seems a little…excessive.
9) I love their restrained neutral palette — pale gray, cream, brown, white, black — and their industrial designs for lighting. But if I were six or eight or 14? Maybe not so much. Your kids have decades ahead of them to stare at wire baskets and faux-Dickensian light fixtures.
10) Have you ever noticed the echt-WASP names included in these catalogs, as would-be monograms or examples of personalization? You won’t ever find a Graciela or Jose or Ahmed or Dasani here, my dears. Instead: Addison, Brady, Lucas, Mason, Ethan, Grace, Charlotte, Chloe, Sarah. Such a 19th-century white-bread version of “reality” ! Am I the only one who finds this pretentious, silly — and very outdated marketing? Many people of color have money to spend on these items as well. My husband’s name is Jose and he’s got great taste and good credit. Include him, dammit!
11) OK, OK. I admit it. I love this chair. After a long crappy day, even a putative adult might enjoy the soft and furry embrace of a stuffed elephant.
12) “Understated grandeur” and “Directoire-style daybed” — in a nursery?!
13) People put taxidermied animal heads on your walls to prove that: a) you know how to shoot accurately; b) you own guns; c) you can afford to spend time in some foreign land on safari; d) you enjoy killing things; e) you have no shame showing this to others. Putting up faux images of wood, paper and metal like these ones seems a little beside the point.
Most people agree that what distinguishes those who become famously creative is their resilience. While creativity at times is very rewarding, it is not about happiness. Staw says a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”
To live creatively is a choice. You must make a commitment to your own mind and the possibility that you will not be accepted. You have to let go of satisfying people, often even yourself.
My subconscious conjured an image of a fabulous party, filled with other writers and publishing types. A place where I could walk in the door to a chorus of cheers, the “Norm” moment, where guard could be let down completely, where there was only shared vocabulary and a fluid ease that would make the jitters go away. There was a social circle that would be the payout for all the rejection and worry and sweat equity I poured into my books. When I talked about it with my brother, I simply described it as “that.” I wanted to have “that.”
All I had to do was get a book deal. I would break out of the world I knew and set up in some secret corner of the social fabric, a backstage pass to the world of writers that I just *knew* was out there, even though I had never seen it before…
There is no party. Not beyond the hour or two at a con or publishing event where you get to show off for a shining moment, bask in the accolades for a few minutes, fan boy gush face to face over someone whose work you admire but never hoped to meet.
And then it’s over, and you’re left with the work.
My husband Jose recently passed a major professional milestone: 30 years as a photographer and photo editor at The New York Times. On 9/11, the day he was to have moved into my apartment in suburban New York from his home in Brooklyn, he instead unpacked his scanner, printer and computer — and helped his colleagues transmit their horrific images from his apartment. His grace under fire helped the paper win that year’s team Pulitzer Prize for photo editing.
He grew up poor, the son of a Baptist preacher in Santa Fe, NM, far from the centers of media power and influence. He attended state school on scholarship. He’s slight, quiet, modest. Everyone else in his family became teachers.
One day, shooting for the Associated Press, the White House press corps — accompanying then First Lady Rosalynn Carter, landed in El Paso.
“Someday that’s going to be me,” said Jose, as he saw its four or five wire service photographers emerge from the plane.
Several colleagues snickered at his hubris.
And then he was, during his eight-year career in the White House Press Corps, photographing Presidents Bush, Reagan and Clinton.
Here’s his brand-new blog, Frame36a, (which refers to the extra frame we used to be able to squeeze from a 36-image roll of film), which will offer advice, insights and fantastic back-stories to some of his best photos.
We all won’t have a career like his.
But anyone with creative ambition — musical, artistic, photographic, literary, choreographic — will face obstacles, whether you’re 17, 27 or 57: lack of funds, no representation, a lost prize or fellowship or scholarship.
After a decade or so, they’ll probably morph into different challenges, but it’s rarely easy.
If you think it should be, this isn’t the world for you.
You don’t have to start out by winning a major prize or selling your work for a lot of money. You just have to get started. I began my career as a photographer, and one of my first sales was to my own high school, an image they bought for the school library. Was I scared to pitch our principal? Hell, yes! But it worked. I also had a show of my images in a Toronto library, again, because I dared to ask. The smaller the ask, the less scary it should be. Those initial triumphs are essential baby steps to your self-confidence as a creative person able to find, and sell into, the marketplace of ideas.
Don’t wait for permission to create! You don’t need a certificate or degree from anyone, anywhere, to create interesting, challenging and worthwhile work. Don’t be terrified if your competitor graduated from RISD or has a Phd from Harvard or was a star at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. If you have the passion and drive to find the toughest teachers out there — and they might be someone you meet at a conference or class — you’ll be on your way. I sold my first photos, three magazine covers, when I was still in high school. Jose was selling his photos while a freshman in college to the Associated Press; by the time we both graduated, we had large and impressive portfolios of nationally-published work. We were far, far ahead of our 22-year-old peers competing for work and jobs.
Don’t give up if you fail the first (second, third) time
I’m amazed how quickly some people give up. I interviewed three times at Newsweek and was never hired there. No harm, no foul. I’ve had an awesome life and career without them. I’ve applied two (three?) times for the Alicia Patterson Fellowship, and was one of 14 finalists (of 347 applicants) last time. I’ll probably apply a few more times until I get it. In the meantime, I just keep improving my skills and strategies.
If you’re really aiming high, you’re always competing against highly-educated, smart, talented and well-prepared competitors. Expect it and arm yourself accordingly. If you want it badly enough — whatever it is — you’ll keep coming back to get it. Or you’ll find something more interesting instead.
Both of my non-fiction books, both of which were published by major New York houses to excellent reviews, were each rejected by 25 publishers first. Fun!
It’s too easy to watch others win awards and prizes and fellowships and hate them. Bandage your ego and get back in the game.
Find people whose work inspire you
This is essential. People who have succeeded in your field have likely hit (and surmounted) many of the same obstacles along the way that you’re facing. Read, listen to and watch them: at conferences, in TED talks, their websites or blogs or books. Follow them on social media like Instagram and Twitter.
If you’re feeling bold, reply to them or re-tweet their words. A relationship with someone who’s already carved their path is helpful. Don’t expect them to mentor you, though. Successful creatives are really busy!
Understand your industry or field: who has power and why?
The best way to get ahead creatively is not to shut yourself away in your studio or a hut in the woods, no matter how romantic that sounds. If you don’t keep up with the movements, controversies and players in your field, you’re too isolated and have no real idea how to access the powers-that-be, the ones whose choices are going to affect your ability to succeed as well.
Make sure to attend at least one conference a year in your industry so you can hear the latest and network with your peers. Showing up in person helps to prove your commitment; people see that and respond accordingly.
Self-doubt and self-confidence will perpetually war within you
It’s the ultimate paradox: to create means taking a risk, putting your skills and ideas into public view for possible rejection or criticism, but it also requires and demands enough confidence in your work to put it out there in the first place.
No creative person I know, or know of, hasn’t suffered — sometimes mightily — from this internal war.
Writers, even the most visibly accomplished, the ones we envy and admire, (who now have a reputation they might squander), lose their nerve or voice. Performers vomit and tremble before setting foot on stage. Artists burn work they’ve spent months or years to produce.
We’re human. It happens.
Make peace with your fears. Name and number them — “Oh, yeah, self-doubt 34a, how the hell are you these days?”
Then keep moving.
You will have to hustle, self-promote and shout louder than you might ever prefer
If you are a modest, gentle soul — like my lovely Jose — you may find the creative path more difficult, surrounded by arrogant, shouty chest-beaters. If you truly crave Big Success, however you choose define it, you may have to toot your own horn loud and long, no matter how declasse your family or friends or native culture consider that.
Volunteer your time and skills within your creative community
I think this is overlooked as a key to long-term success.
You don’t have time? Make it. People most respect, value and reach out to help those they respect personally — not just someone whose work they read about or saw in a show or in concert. I was only 19, still in college, when I volunteered to interview lions of Canada’s journalism industry for a book. How else could I ever have met or spoken to them, let alone learned their wisdom? Then they also knew who I was. Win-win.
I’ve served for years on volunteer boards for writers’ groups. It helped to hone my people skills, (still a work in progress!), taught me about fund-raising and how to defend and explain my ideas to a skeptical group.
It also shows clients and colleagues my pride in, and commitment to, my larger creative community.
Find, or create, a group that meets weekly, or monthly. Create an on-line listserv or Facebook group. Mentoring others comes back in waves of generosity, for years.
Make time to reflect, recharge and revive your spirit
No matter what you hope to create or produce, make time to recharge. Sit still in silence every day. Stare at the sky, no matter what the weather. Make notes whenever you get an idea. Keep them!
Travel as far and as often as you can afford
There’s no better way to sharpen your senses than to step out of habitual behaviors and routines: taking the same subway line or bus route; eating the same cereal at breakfast; seeing the same faces at work. Even a two-hour road trip to a nearby town or city or nature preserve can offer you new ideas and insights.
Have a clear vision of what you hope to accomplish, today and/or in a decade
You can’t get there, wherever there is, without a clear idea what it is. Only by naming it can you start to lay the necessary groundwork — whether admission to the best program of study, a fellowship, a job, access to a busy mentor, publication of your novel or a gallery show. It’s too daunting to stare only at the cloud-shrouded Everest of your final goal. Focus on the foothills!
I recently started a writers’ group and called it Story Sherpas — no one gets there alone, without the help and support of a team along the way.
Study the work of the very best in your field
Don’t assume the best are working today. They might have powerful lessons to offer from their endeavors — possibly centuries ago.
Save a lot of money!
Creative “success” can, and often does, evaporate overnight — and with it your ability to dick around and await your muse.
Read this cautionary tale, from a New York writer whose book advance was a stunning $200,000, way more than any writer I know has ever received. She blew it.
Don’t ever rest on your laurels. They can wither mighty fast.
Occasionally, I review a week in the life of a full-time writer, me.
That’s a whole week ago, so I can barely remember. Finished up a fact-checking job for another writer, someone I’ve never met who lives in Florida, whose book is a series of brief biographies. A story I’d written for the Wall Street Journal — whose income, as always, I rely on — was abruptly killed, an overnight loss of $600. Shit.
In an online members-only writers’ forum, I saw the plea for fact-checking help and, for $25/hour, jumped in. I made up $500 of that lost $600 with a week’s phoning, emailing and on-line research, even though I’d never fact-checked before. Much of my work now means jumping, without hesitation or fear, into media and projects I have zero experience with.
But now I have to let all the people I interviewed for the WSJ piece know they’re not going to get the mention they had hoped for. One of the problems of writing for a living that’s rarely discussed publicly is managing your sources, without whom you have nothing to write about. I hate wasting people’s time and now have to share this disappointing news with them. I fear it make me look incompetent, when a killed story happens maybe 1% of the time.
Off to cover a trade show in Manhattan, at the (ugh) Javits Center, the massive conference center at the western edge of the city. I hate Javits! This is the third year in a row I’ve attended the National Retail Federation’s Big Show, an annual event that brings every possible vendor of anything interesting to a retailer — scanners, training programs, scheduling software, PLM (product life management) software. It’s basically an annual arms race, in which one or several Big Box retailers adopts a specific system, the vendor touts their win, and competitors think “Hmmmm, maybe we need this as well.”
The center is so huge that even walking to the bathroom or coat check is a hike; one vendor wearing a pedometer tells me she walked 10 miles there in one day.
I run around the place interviewing the eight people I’ve been asked to meet. Some use acronyms I’ve never heard — PLM, RFID — and I’m dancing as fast as I can. RFID turns out to be, (to me anyway), fascinating, radio frequency identification, which embeds every paper clothing tag with a device that can be read from a distance without opening a box to check inventory. (OK, I guess I’m a systems geek.)
Having worked retail for 2.5 years as an associate for The North Face — the subject of my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” — and having to slash open huge boxes of clothing with a box cutter, (talk about inefficient and dangerous), I’m really intrigued by this efficient new system. But it’s expensive — 7 to 8 cents per tag — and I realize how much cost our clothing prices include that we never see or know about.
I leave Javits at 4:00 pm, into pouring rain. Of course, there are no cabs at the taxi rank and a long line of miserable people waiting. My feet are killing, me but I hoof it another four long, wet blocks to the bus stop to catch the crosstown bus to Grand Central to catch the train home.
So excited! Today I’m attending another trade show in the city, for the same editor, someone in a distant state I’ve also never met, (typical of my worklife). This show is a lot smaller, and a lot more fun, a combination of textile manufacturers and designers whose own paintings and digital prints designers buy, then use in their own collections. Glam-looking professionals, all in chic bits of black, cluster on the sidewalk clutching their coffees, waiting for the doors to open at 9:00 a.m.
Two dozen of us watch an hour-long video of spring/summer 2015 trends: pale colors, lots of mesh, netting, lace and transparent fabrics. Neon is out, kids! I run around the show until 5:00 interviewing the people on my list. Many are French, so I speak the most French I have in ages, which I love. I see spectacularly beautiful silk, lace, wool, mesh and satins and recognize the names of some Very Big fashion labels on the buyers selecting their choices. One designer of amazing patterns, which you can buy, own and use exclusively for $625, tells me that one of my favorite women’s activewear companies uses many of his designs.
I’ll never look at a piece of clothing quite the same way again. This is why journalism is so addictive. In one day, I’ve enjoyed: meeting a pile of highly creative people; gotten to use my language skills; learned a great deal about this industry and made some useful new contacts for future stories and projects. What’s not to like?
Time to bang out two 1,000-word stories, due this evening to my editor in California. No pressure!
I also call and email editors whose payments to me — as is now typical — have not arrived, even weeks later. While 30 days is normal, the pace of my production is much faster now, and waiting for a month for something I have to bang out within a day or two seems ridiculous. At this point, I have pennies in my bank account, bills are due and I have to start using my line of credit. (I have significant retirement savings and another emergency fund with six months’ expenses, but a short-term cash flow issue is not, in my mind, an emergency. I keep those funds in case, God forbid, I simply can’t work at all for a period of time, to be able to keep contributing the amount my husband relies on every month for our expenses and savings.)
A freelancer who can’t pay their bills on time is someone whose business, health and reputation are at risk. I’ve had a bank line of credit — $16,000 worth — for more than a decade. When I call and email editors, my tone needs to be breezy, relaxed, happy, not someone desperate for any assignment. (Even if it might be true!)
I email and call half a dozen editors, print and on-line, to check on the progress of my pitches to them. A pitch I’ve sent to one Marie Claire editor comes back, suggesting another editor there, and possibly a better fit for a competing magazine. I try the second MC editor and decide to give it a week before trying the competitor.
Exhausted. Between writing, blogging, tweeting and FB, I feel like my eyes are going to melt. I should jump at once into my next story, a long personal essay for Good Housekeeping, but I desperately need a day to myself and off the damn computer. I’m also physically spent from two crazy days of walking and non-stop interviewing.
I have an eye exam and discover — which I knew — I finally need reading glasses. The optometrist is a woman my age who tells me I’ve dodged that bullet a decade longer than most.
I get an email, out of the blue, from a source in California I’d interviewed last year for my (unsold) book proposal, asking me (!) to possibly speak at their annual conference. I give her an idea what that will cost and hope it will come through. I enjoy public speaking and it’s the easiest money I now earn.
I drive to Greenwich, a super-wealthy Connecticut town about 20 minutes east of us, to pick up a gallon of my favorite, spendy, British-made paint, Farrow & Ball. We’re having a new contact over for dinner — someone who might (!) send me on a very cool research trip for her organization — so we want the apartment spotless. I splurge on some gorgeous fresh flowers, white nerines, orange tulips and some greenery, and pick up the food for the dinner. I’d hoped to make filet mignon but at $29/lb. (!!!!) choose pork chops instead.
The show is fairly large, and the images — of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1905, of child labor in 1915, of African Americans in the 1920s — are powerful, some of them very familiar. A former schoolteacher, Hine became the pre-eminent photographer of his era, capturing slices of life that were damning and which prompted social change. Yet he died broke and unknown.
I wonder what impels us to do the work we do, to care as deeply as we do, if this is to be our inglorious end.
Our dinner is a lot of fun; our guests have lived and worked in Europe, the U.S. and Africa, so we have lots of stories to share, from the White House (my husband was a NYT photographer there for 8 years) to Rwanda.
Pooped! A day to sleep, recharge, catch up with my husband, himself a busy, tired NYT photo editor, and read four newspapers — the WSJ, two days of the NYT and the weekend Financial Times.
I bang out this blog post, trying not to freak out about the coming week: bills due, no checks (yet) and a 2,000 word piece due on Thursday I haven’t had a minute to start work on.