In the Studio · On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · On Design & Art

On Giving Up on Creativity in Small Fragments of Time

This week is only slightly less frantic than last — as I write, I’m heading to the studio for what will be my longest stint in the past couple of weeks.

Some of what’s been in my way is personal life bullshit, and some of it is a time-sucking-but-hopefully-good-investment-professional-project, but in any event: not much concentrated creative productivity has been happening here.

As I discussed last week, I’ve been thinking about ways to work against my preferences, and to be more creative in the fragments of time that I do have.

My first thought was that I could do some of the “thinking work” of jewelry design outside of the studio. Like, say, on the subway.

I tried this the other day by writing a series of questions and answers in my Evernote journal:  

Finalize design for tiny stacking bracelets.  (But what does this mean? How do I do that?) 

Well, I have to decide if I am making them as stacking bracelets or as an ambivalence necklace. (And/or should I make and stamp more tiny copper strips to have options on hand for both?) 

Both, but I’ll complete the bracelets first, so next steps are cutting chain, attaching the strips via wire wrapping. Deciding on a clasp. Fabricating clasp if necessary. Soldering. 

Efficiency gold star for me, right? I felt great about this clarity, and resolved I would forevermore maintain a list of questions about current projects to consider in odd times.

Except for that I didn’t actually didn’t do any of the things I decided on in advance, because when I got to the studio, and looked at everything, I realized I didn’t like the chain or the crystal I had on hand. Thinking about the project wasn’t the same as handling the materials. I’m a tactile designer, decisions made in the abstract aren’t so useful to me. (I finished them this week instead, ta da.)

So I changed the terms of my experiment. Instead of trying to be more creative in short periods of time, I now plan to lengthen my small creative fragments of time as much as possible. In other words, I need to minimize what is getting in between me and my studio time.

Reality, an inventory

The first step to increased efficiency is figuring out the exact current situation. A lot of my time is going into the administrative end of my business right now, so I’ve been tracking how long these tasks take. And let me tell you: it all takes much longer than I’d have guessed. 

For example, today I planned to pop a couple of new pieces up on my new site and Etsy. I’d already written a draft of the copy yesterday – I need different text for both sites – so I figured this would take about a half hour, tops.
Well. It took a little over an hour, because for one thing, I’d failed to draft all of the info I needed and I had to write it on the spot. And for another, it just plain took me longer to fill in all the fields correctly, especially on my new site. 

So, I made a checklist for myself of info I need for these listings — some of which I can jot down in the studio– and created a couple of templates, which will make the whole thing move faster in the future. 

Also, I’ll budget more time for this in the future. For me, lot of this is about expectations. I’m frustrated that I’m not in the studio RIGHT NOW, since I planned to be there a half hour ago. I feel like this time is stolen from me, when of course I basically stole it from myself.

Streamline set up and clean up as much as possible. 

The visual arts, in general, require more set up and break down time. They don’t lend themselves as well to creativity in stolen fragments of time as writing does. For example, when I’m making enamels, it takes time for the kiln to heat up, to wash the enamels, to prepare the metal–  and none of this can be done in advance. And since  I have a shared studio space, I can’t leave a mess at the end of the day. Which I wouldn’t want to do anyway.

I’ve been working on minimizing my set-up and clean-up for a while now. One very low-tech tool I’ve found helpful is a studio map.

It’s not much to look at, but it indicates exactly where, in each cabinet and on each shelf, I keep my supplies. This minimizes the time I spend on mad supply searches, and makes clean up at the end of the day a snap. (Before I made this map, I was just shoving things into cabinets and hoping they’d stay shut. Which they often wouldn’t. Avalanches are not efficient.)

Also, I clean my workspace in a certain order, so I don’t forget important things, like turning offthe torch for the night — which involves bleeding the lines. It was a real time waster to return to the studio on the freezing cold night I forgot to do this.

Finally, I’ve come up with ways to keep supplies together for projects AND put them away. I use a tray that initially came into my life from the supermarket, where it originally held grapes. It’s the right size, things don’t slide around on its foam surface, and it nests very well.

Finishing isn’t the goal necessarily 

Although I do want to minimize my short studio stints in favor of longer ones, I do have to concede that good comes from those shorter work bursts. On the day I realized I couldn’t work on my tiny stacking bracelets, I ended up working on something else — brass pendants I started in the Fall and left fallow . I completed three necklaces rather quickly.

Cheerful conclusion: maybe it’s moving the ball forward that counts, not the length of the work session. String enough short work sessions together, and at some point, projects will get completed. It’s Van Gogh’s quote that I mentioned last week — great things happening from small things brought together over time.

The trick, it seems to me, is not to let the slow pace of progress drive you insane. 

In the Studio · On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · Uncategorized

On Creative Productivity in Fragments of Time

This week has been nothing but interruptions. The major hole-blower in my schedule: my ex-husband filed for bankruptcy.

As our business is far from concluded, and there are lingering connections between our financial lives, this has created many complications for me. Lawyer meetings, prep for these meetings, phone calls to and from various financial institutions, brooding, interrupted sleep.

I haven’t gotten into the studio all week. I have gotten a couple of other things done that I could do out of the studio: photographing new pieces — that’s what’s below; setting up my new ecommerce website; writing. But these projects I’ve been doing in fits and starts, squeezing them in the available gaps in time.

This has never been my preferred way to work. Or so I have always believed. If you’d asked me, I would have said that for maximum creativity and productivity, I require silken bolts of uninterrupted time. (I really would have said it like that, drama queen that I am.) 

Musing on this on the subway on Tuesday morning (en route to my lawyer, having left my kitchen table photography studio in medias res,so we wouldn’t be able to eat breakfast there the next morning) I wrote in Evernote: 

I find it wrenching to leave a project incomplete and switch to another. One of the benefits of freelance creative work is that supposedly that if you get stuck on one project, you can start pushing on another. This is true, but the reality for me is that the project switch doesn’t happen because of stuckness, it always happens because something else encroaches. Another project, a lawyer, a doctor, a freaking Indian chief. A cat throws up. It’s getting late and you want and need to see your beloved or eat or pee. This life business, it’s just so aggravating. 

Initially I thought this post would be an old fashioned rant against multitasking — not hard to do because science says it’s terrible— but then I realized I was totally full of shit. 

After all, I was writing on the subway, having first moved away from a very large man with wild hair who was growling about angels, then trying not to breathe in the heavy cologne of a bowler hat wearing dandy who sat down next to me. I was writing in the fragments of available time, which I have continued to do this week, and now, as my train crosses the Manhattan Bridge. 

“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” I posted that Vincent Van Gogh quote over my desk for many years, and I know it to be true about writing.

No one can research or write a book, article, essay. You can only make a list of research and reporting questions, and track down the sources with the answers, one by one. You can only write one word after another.  (For anyone who’s ever read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, this is essentially the distinction between what he calls “projects” which can’t really be accomplished in on step, and the “next actions,” or tasks, that lead to a project’s completion.)

I’m not that precious about my writing — I know much of it can be done anywhere, as long I’ve got something to write with. At a certain point, I’ll want to have a long period of time without interruptions to complete a draft. I’ll want to do that on my computer, where I can type quickly and work most efficiently.

But I don’t need to a precisely designated writing time to get going. In fact, it’s better if I don’t. It’s better if I establish a general framework for the piece I want to write, to think about for a while. On an assignment, the editor sets the framework. But for creative writing projects that are amorphous at the start,  I like Montaigne’s  “On X Topic” formulation. 

For this essay you’re now reading, the first framework was”on multitasking,” then it switched to “on interruptions” and now it’s “on creative productivity in fragments of time.” This all has been tumbling around my mind all week, and so I jotted thoughts down as they naturally occurred —  waiting on line at the bank, lying in bed, walking down the street, sitting at my kitchen table while the coffee brewed. So when I sat down to pull the whole thing into shape, much of the writing battle was already fought and won.

The struggle for me now is how to translate what I know about one area of creative work to another. Obviously, jewelry making isn’t nearly as portable as writing.(Although I do have a mini-butane torch, it’s not practical to squeeze in a little soldering on the subway.) I’m working on a few thoughts on this, and I’ll share what I come up with next week. 

In the Studio · On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · Uncategorized

On Creating What You Love Versus Meeting Market Demand 

Do what you love.

Depending on who you talk to, this is either the best or worst advice for creative professionals. Doing what you love leads to authentic, original work. Nothing’s wrong with that. Except for the scorn of business experts, who will correctly say in some fancy way that success relies on figuring who your customer is, and what they want, and giving that to them.

Creatives who end up selling their work usually hit on something that is both beloved in their own eyes and hits a customer need. A sweet spot that’s easier for some to find than others. But still, eventually, most will find themselves somewhere inside this dilemma– what people want to pay for isn’t what they want to make. Or they used to want to make it, and now they don’t.

Art and commerce have an uneasy relationship, its rockiness best explored in The Gift by Lewis Hyde. Personally I have spent a career considering this situation, in the writing realm and now in jewelry, as I pound the words “fuck this shit” into metal for various bodily adornments. 

I made the first iteration of this line for myself, and then people wanted it. Then I got tired of making it — and I fell in love and was so so so happy and it was springtime — so I took a break from making and selling Fuck This Shit. But people kept asking me for it, and luckily (?) life kept fucking with me in various shitty ways, so I renewed the making. And expanded the line in various ways, as customer demand, well, demanded. 
One day I won’t want to make them anymore again, and what then? I’m thinking about that. 


I’ve also made things for myself that haven’t connected with customers. I mean, at all. For example, I really am excited by upcycling, and Mr. Alison loves craft beer. So one day I figured out how to make earrings from the wire caps that hold in the corks on fancy beer bottles. (These are called cages.) I love these earrings, they’re in my regular rotation. I’m wearing them right now, actually. I made some others feeling very convinced that they would sell, you can see a few of them in the photo above. And what happened was….pfffft. Crickets.

Another example, slightly less of a failure but not exactly a success were my vintage NY glass necklaces, also pictured above. 

These, I will confess, were more calculated on my part, although I started with pure motivations. I gathered the vintage glass because I loved it, and in fact this glass collection is what led me to take my first jewelry classes, because I wanted to wear it and I didn’t know how to do that.

But when I made a bunch of these necklaces this past summer, I was primarily thinking that people would want to buy them. I do think they’re beautiful. I did make one for myself. And a few have sold, but it can’t be considered a commercial success. 
So what to make of all this? Here are my provisional theories: 

  • There are no guarantees in this world. you make things and you don’t really know how they’ll be received. I don’t care how many degrees you have or established you are. There’s no formula, like percentage of pure inspiration = so many goodies, whether that’s dollars, awards, universal love. 
  • The market doesn’t care if the maker continues to be authentically inspired, and neither does the bank account. Demand exists long after the creater is finished with the thing. It took me some doing to kill off my business writing career once I lost my mojo for it in 2007, and it would have been harder if the economy hadn’t tanked at the same time the media business transformed. Fundamentally it’s hard to turn down money when you need it. 
  • The more experienced you are, the more you can get away with pandering to the market. After a couple of decades of work, I can write a story I don’t give an itty bitty shit about and it will sell and be read and no one will suffer but me, when I’m writing it. I’ve done it enough to know how to fake it. In jewelry I can’t pull this off, and I know it. 
  • We are all humans so what moves one person will move others. Makers don’t stand apart from the rest of humanity. If you make something you really adore, others will too. If something isn’t connecting, you just haven’t found the market yet. This could be because your market is literally three other people on the entire planet, so when you wail no one likes my work! for all practical purposes, you’re right. Your audience is a rounding error to zero. But probably more than three people will also like what you’re doing. Because seriously — how much of a special freak do you really think you are?


In the Studio · On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing

On the Hidden Poetry of French Grammar

And now, a not-so-shocking confession: I’ve never been the biggest fan of French grammar. Or grammar in any language, really.

Okay, maybe that’s a little shocking, what with my whole career as a writer and all. Like many Americans my age and younger, I learned English grammar through immersion and usage, and only learned about grammar per se while studying other languages. For me that was French, in junior high school — when I hated apparently arbitrary rules even more than I do now.

In fact, I only came to own this circa 1940s handbook on French grammar because I intended to tear it up. I got it for a dollar at a thrift store, mostly because I love the feel of vintage paper, and because it has some fun olde photos of Paris.

I dug it out of my stash the other day because I’m making a small series of necklaces featuring commas. (My ambivalent feelings about grammar do not include punctuation marks, which I adore.) I thought that the mellowed color of antique paper beads would go well with brushed nickel and copper, and I like the idea of using a grammar book for this purpose. Here’s a look, in progress.

But when I started to make the beads, I was struck (and then delayed) by the phrases the authors chose to use as their pedagogical examples.

They seem to hint at some deeper meaning, like they’re fragments of a deeper life philosophy:

much money
how much coffee
less money
little bread
so much money
too much time

Or notes for a complicated French film.

the husband’s room
the children’s room
to the brother
to the brothers
at the windows

The italics are theirs, which I think  add to the effect.

Here’s one more that I especially like, hinting at a complicated (potentially gay?) romance.

Of the man
To the man. 
Of the woman
To the woman. 

So of course, I couldn’t bear to slice these particular pages into paper beads. (Where only one word is visible, thus destroying the inadvertent poetry.) Luckily there are plenty of other pages in this book that aren’t so fab, so those became the beads I needed.

I’ll make something else with these pages that will preserve these tiny mysteries. I think that last fragment wouls work well in a piece for Valentine’s Day. N’est pas?


Inspiration: Tree Shadows

The city is full of shadows, and I love them.

I love the shadows cast by buildings, by wrought iron balconies, and fences in parks and light posts on the streets and railings everywhere.

But most of all, I adore the shadows cast by city trees, wily survivors that grow surrounded by concrete.


Tree shadows are the best at this time of year. The shadows cast by trees in partial and full leaf,  during the spring, summer and autumn– those are okay too. They’re gracious, they shade and cool you, they have a function.

But for me, visually, the shadows of tree leaves are a little soft on their own. They require additional backdrops, like this one from a construction site.



To my eye, shadows cast by bare trees, against the sky, or against a building are the best because they have no function. They are what they are, and nothing more.  A dark shell of an unconscious tree, charcoal against the sky.


I even love the shadows cast by trees outside of the city. And especially against snow, when the tree shadow is as dark as bark wet with sumi ink.



I’m working on a necklace right now that involves the fragment of a black mussel shell I found on the beach in Rehoboth last month.  On my way to the studio yesterday, I took another photo of a tree shadow — it’s on Instagram, if you’re curious.

On my way home from the studio, I was thinking about why I reached for that particular shell in my stash.  When I looked through the photos of the day, I realized it was because the shell reminded me of a shadow.  I’ll post a photo of the necklace soon.

Alison Wonderland Jewelry · On Design & Art

The Power of Profanity: Alison Wonderland Jewelry

For the last few months — as I’ve been broadly hinting here — I’ve been working on a new venture, a jewelry business: Alison Wonderland Jewelry. I’m getting ready to formally launch my Etsy shop soon, and a Big Cartel shop. At the moment, I’ve just been tinkering with both of these sites,  but much… Continue reading The Power of Profanity: Alison Wonderland Jewelry