A chronicle of the meanderings, false starts (which in retrospect, while sort of embarrassing turned out to be highly instructive), epiphanies, selective apathy (still evolving), wild mood swings, opinions (subject to frequent change), and life lessons of an inveterate dabbler (and her latest dabblings).

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Fickle Muse, or, as She is Known in Clinical Circles, Cyclothymia

Every other "Etsy Success" article is about quitting your day job to make your art/craft full time, as your sole means of financial support. This is put forward as some sort of universal human goal we are all to strive for. I have been examining the feasibility of this scenario in my life, more out of intellectual curiosity than actual intent. I do think it is possible, for example, to support yourself decently by designing, making and selling jewelry. Going the one-woman-shop-handmade route might make it a stretch to actually have a retirement nest egg, or good health insurance, if you're going it alone, but you could probably keep a roof over your head if you did it right. The right target market, right mix of products/price points, right mix of selling venues, good marketing, shrewd money decisions. And I actually think that I would probably be shrewd and clever enough to figure out, on paper, how to make that work.

The kicker, however, is actually managing to do it. Day after day after day.

A regular customer said to me once, kind of wistfully,"Oh I envy you! It must be so relaxing to sit down and make a piece of jewelry at the end of the day." Are you shitting me? Relaxing? Not in a million years. It's effing exhausting. For me, anyway. There is a significant amount of anxiety surrounding every single project I do (never have figured out quite what I'm afraid of), and every time I start something, I have to climb over a little ball of anxiety in my gut and that requires energy. That's why so much of every weekend is frittered away in aimless pottering--I'm procrastinating, I'm psyching myself up, I'm circling. I have to spend a few hours circling the project, trying to get the anxiety under control, before I start on it. (I also find it a rather lonely thing to do, and I don't like that feeling of isolation--maybe I'm having an existential crisis every time I start a piece...) And in the end, I just have to say, ENOUGH of this, just do it, you know how, you've done it before. And I make myself sit down and get started. Once I start on it, it's better, and I can generally get it finished (unless I hate it), even if it takes a few days. But I am utterly FRIED by the time I'm done. It's physically and mentally exhausting to me. (I guess I do it more out of a need to vent a creative urge, than for actual fun; I find dammed up creativity makes me feel sick). I have constant neck and back pain, and usually a low grade headache from neck strain. My posture while I'm working on stuff is execrable and I could definitely improve on that (like trade in the coffee table for an actual Big Girl Table), but sitting in one place/one position, for hours at a time, working on some minute little thing, is the most tiring thing I've ever done. My eyes get tired. My brain gets tired. I feel like I've been hit by a truck. Five hours in a day (not counting circling) actually making stuff is the most I can do (and I can't make more than two things, tops, in five hours, unless it's all earrings and then it's maybe three or four pair b/c I make so many of my own components and I agonize over every stupid element in the design), and then I have to switch to something else--photographing it or listing it or posting it on this or that site or whatever. But eight hours of jewelry related stuff in a day is all I can tolerate and then I'm a wreck. And that's on a good day.

My ability to do creative work fluctuates wildly. I have a mild but annoying mood disorder I have to work around, and unfortunately during certain portions of that mood cycle I cannot produce anything, and have difficulty even thinking about producing anything. (I'm there right now, for I'm sure the next several days at least). Fortunately, since I met Tom, the periods of anxiety/depression and/or irritability/agitation/depression (the permutations are a real joy) have become less frequent, milder, and of shorter duration, but while they last I am creatively debilitated or even incapacitated. I feel flat and unfocused at the same time, and every idea I have is utter crap. Jewelery irritates me. And I just don't have the energy to care about it. And all I can do when I'm in the middle of that is walk away from it. For as long as I need to. That would not be an option if my jewelry was paying the rent. Having to force myself to churn out new pieces when my emotional landscape is a chaotic wasteland would be a hellish existence I cannot imagine willfully choosing for myself. Happily, I can continue to do my day job with only a slight decrease in effectiveness when I'm going through a bad patch like this; low or agitated mood only seems to have a modest effect on my intellect/organizational ability, but it puts the hammer on my creativity. And of course my joy, because it's, well, depression.

This has happened numerous times over the last year and a half I've been doing this (that I've walked away for a while), and I'm accustomed enough to my mood cycles to know that they will end--both high mood (which is actually very nice and helpful and sometimes alleviates the anxiety) and low mood will run their course (in my case those cycles tend to be short), and I'll settle again soon enough into something approaching "normal" and I'll be able to work again. It is a wonderful freedom to be able to do that--to let myself off the hook for my creative goals until further notice, and not have to worry about the rent.

I have been more tired in the last several months than I have ever been in my life. I think it's partly that I'm getting older, partly that the day job was very busy and rather stressful earlier this summer, and probably that I'm not taking enough time for myself. Because I spend so much time aimlessly pottering and "circling" anyway, it doesn't seem to affect how much I accomplish if I take an hour to go to the gym, or spend an evening with a friend. I can spend an hour picking at that ball of anxiety at home, or I can leave and go do something else entirely and not even think about it and still probably create the same amount of jewelry. And maybe have a better time doing it. Sometimes I resent that my "hobby" gobbles up so much time, but if I quit I would eventually have to find some other creative outlet anyway so I might as well keep doing it since I suck at painting and sewing.

I'm sure not having a day job would free up a lot of energy for creativity--I have to keep reminding myself, in the evening when I sit down to make something and just want to vegetate in front of the tube instead and feel like a slacker because of it, that I just worked all day. And just maybe that's why I'm tired and want some down time. Being tied up 50 hours a week between work/commuting is going to limit my other pursuits, whatever they are. But those 50 hours are doable. I can't honestly imagine having to do jewelry 50 hours a week. I just don't have it in me. Let alone the 80 hours I hear many jewelry artists work. (Yes, I would love to not have to go to a job every day. But I would want it to be because I was stinking rich.)

Quit my day job? Certainly not.

How about you? Do you ever feel anxiety about starting a new piece? Does making a piece of jewelry energize you? Relax you? Or tire you? Do you struggle with fatigue? How do you address that? Is your muse a constant thing, or does she sometimes desert you? What do you do when you "just aren't in the mood?" If you support yourself with your jewelry, how many hours a day do you spend actually fabricating your pieces? What do you do when you're burnt out? What's your ideal work week, in terms of hours per day? (Feel free to answer none, some or all of these questions as appropriate!)


  1. Wow! Thank you for this post! I tend to get cranky when I'm creating a new piece and I've secretly thought something was wrong with me....I'm not the only one! And I'd never give up my day job because I also fritter away time processing and obsessing over each piece. Somehow I still get so much satisfaction from jewelry making.....go figure! I love this post.

  2. Great post! I don't have the cycling, but I definitely have been battling depression my entire adult life so I totally get the whole "can't even look at anything remotely creative right now."

    There definitely seem to be times when I'm "in the zone" creatively and not only do I get more pieces finished, but they are of higher quality. Then there's the time when I'm just enjoying putting stuff together, but the designs are pretty pedestrian and nothing to get excited over.

    And then there's the down times. Burn out, depression, fatigue, muse has skipped town - whatever. I used to try to force myself to work through those, but I finally learned that that only resulted in crappy design, mistakes, wasted materials and a LOT of "re-do" (which I LOATHE) so I've kind of learned to recognize those times and I don't let myself make stuff when I feel that way.

    I will say that the quality of your work is so phenomenal - it totally shows that you paid attention and cared about every bit of detail and design.

    I would write more, but I'm sure the comment box is not the place for a novel ;-)

    Hang in there!

    P.S. Every time I read about someone quitting their "day" job to go full time on Etsy or other venues...a little judicious digging reveals that they have a spouse/partner/siginficant other who still HAS a day job (usually with great bennies and high pay). I think having a "safety net" like that makes ALL the difference.

    Okay...NOW I'm done ;-)

  3. Oh God.....by some chance are we related?????
    Not to be rude, but I'm so glad to find someone who is like me(there are probably more of "us" than I realize) The circling.....round and round and round and back again....are you sure we're not related???
    I did quit my day job. For a while. Went on the road living like a carni,traveling to Arizona and New Mexico,California,Oregon,all over the place....doing the wholesale shows and seeing that "EVERYONE" is a jewelry artisan and silversmith(really the proper term is goldsmith)and learning people have no morals or conscience....copying,stealing....After 10 yrs I became so disenchanted that I decided to come home and go back to work....I even quit jewelry making for a while after seeing 200 pieces of my OOAK design being sold by someone I thought I could trust....he didn't even bother to change the stone I used,the stone I CUT and faceted, the piece I sawed out and polished by hand....of course nothing is new or one of a kind, someone else did it before me and will do it after, RIGHT???
    Oh no, Im sooooo sorry, this isn't about my rants, this is about you!!!
    Don't worry, you're not full of crap, you're not a freak or anything like that!!! You may not feel any better after my post, but you sure made me feel BETTER. I'm so glad to read your post,so glad to see someone like me,so glad.....it's like we're kindred. Thank YOU!!!We are just "over thinkers" there's nothing wrong with that, it just takes us a little more time (time none of us seems to have these days)Some say we're perfectionists(I DO NOT include housework in that "perfection" hehehe) If you ever wanna bitch just drop me a line, I'm right here with ya....
    ~Sharon aka MoonRae~

  4. Holy crap, yes!! Ditto!! Every time I think about just making jewelry to sell (or writing for money, or doing anything creative for money), all I have to do is start thinking about the practical realities of all that and my head explodes. And that's just doing it part time in addition to my day job.

    I love creating. I need to create. But I've learned that as soon as I put a production goal on that creativity, my soul tightens up and I want to run away. (I, too, endure a mild mood disorder. Yippee.)

    So, my dream is to just create as I want, when I want. And then someday, someone will miraculously see my work, love it, and give me lots and lots of money for it. Until that happens, the word selling is banned from my craft room.


  5. So good to know I'm not the only tortured artist out there! yes, the idea of making this my living is overwhelming (cue exploding head, Maria), and the idea of having to create "under the gun" does indeed make my soul tighten up--an apt image. although selling it when I don't really have to isn't so bad. it's sort of like fishing. I like throwing a new piece out there and seeing if anybody bites. If not, I won't starve. Yep, Sharon, I'm an "over-thinker!" Sometimes I wish for a (temporary) head injury that would leave me with only my reptilian brain functioning. (And then I would have more in common with my fellow motorists). Putting something together without thinking never seems to work for me. My instincts aren't close enough to the surface for that, I have to dig for them.

  6. Keirstan! You hit it squarely on the head, girl!
    Having creative fatigue is very common. You are not alone. And to know that there are others who are not automatans cranking out the fabulous without some sort of inspiration hiccups makes it so much more real. Yeah, I have had people incredulous that this is my 9p-midnight (or one or two am) job, that I don't make my living this way. This gallery exhibit has me so emotionally and physically drained, and my creativity is in a slump because of it. But it is selling, so I know I need to make more (and the big unveiling party isn't until tomorrow night!). I don't go through circling like you are talking, but there is a lot of doubt and puttering and pissing away the night looking for just the right bead, or layering the resin just so. I totally get you.

    I read in a book that creatives go through a fallow season, like a farmer with crops. You leave it alone but keep priming the soil so that when the growing time returns there is a rich soil that has been given a needed rest ready to produce again. My fallow season is usually after something big, like the Christmas rush, or this gallery exhibit.

    And I agree about the Etsy fallacies of quitting said job. I have no illusions. I would like to work LESS at my day job, but I am realistic enough to know that I have to have some income that is steady. Maybe just not this deadend crappy-ass job that I am currently mired in. I am working on that. I also set a loose goal for myself. I knew that in 10 years I didn't want to look back on this time and regret that I didn't try to do it. And so I shall.
    But I will continue to be with you on the creativity pooped-outed-ness. I am there with you, now sistah!
    Thanks for giving me something to think about. I will come back to read this post again.
    Enjoy the day!

  7. here it goes - and by the way - you asked for it... i absolutely dread making some pieces... i wander around the house, jump on the computer, do absolutely anything i can find to do except start... my last abs piece is a perfect example... once i get going, i am fine - sometimes... but it is work for me for sure... at the same time, it is something that i must do... i have been know to get up from anywhere and run through the house to the garage where i have to try out something with the torch... my brain plagues me... there is no letting go and chilling out while i work... it can be frustrating when people think you are just 'playing at your little hobby'... that sets my teeth on edge... and even if i am not making enough to support myself doing it at this time, i still resent it being called a hobby (yes, this is a sensitive topic for me... picking up on that, are you?!)... i have a very vague type of visual journal that i keep for ideas before i fall asleep... and that can be helpful... but i find i feel this way most when i know i need to push myself further... a blessing and a curse... so there you have it... today was a wandering around day and i am trying to figure out things that i did to make myself not feel so guilty... i always go back to a saying by picasso - 'inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.' at the end of the day, i love that i am able to do what i do (literally, not financially though that would be nice) because i am driven and it just feels right...

  8. Yes, of course I feel some anxiety occasionally when I'm making jewelry but mostly it is a joy. I don't mean it's always easy but it's definitely better than taking care of sick people (may day or night job). I can easily work 5-6 hours until my stomach rumbles and then go back to it once I've eaten. I used to do this all the time on my days off. Now, I live with my son's family (three granddaughters)
    and seldom have extended peace and quiet. But, I am, by nature, a solitary type. I have clinical depression that sometimes rears it's ugly head no matter how diligent I am and that is when I can't work. I sit at my table and look at wire and beads but that's all I can do. I'm grateful for my job for the dependable income but mostly for the health insurance. So, while i can't afford to make jewelry only, I would love to have the opportunity. However, when I can't work (depression-wise) I cut my self slack and just use the time to read or whatever refuels me until I'm better. So, do whatever you need to feel good and let yourself enjoy the creative process, your work is stunning!

    Now my comment is longer than your post! (and yes, sometimes taking care of sick people is rewarding, it's just not creative).

  9. Well Keirsten, sounds like there is a big crowd of us. As much as I'd love to "quit my day job" and I'm bored with it and constantly tired, I truly can't imagine making jewelry full time. Yes I'd love to do it more, much much more, without the fatigue of working a full time job but not right now for sure.

    We just have to keep plugging away, doing what we can do when we can, but taking care of ourselves is top priority. I veg on the couch watching tv these days more than I like to admit, but it's all I have left in me many days after getting home from work. Weekends are typically fairly busy so it's hard to find down time AND creative time on weekends as well.

    You write about it all so well, so much humor and gutsy honesty girl!! You rock!

  10. My Mom has suffered from bi-polar disorder since she was a child and I'm thankful every single day that I dodged that bullet. It was a pleasure to read your take on it, knowing that it's cyclical. Sometimes you just have to say "this too shall pass", and power through the hard times. Bravo to you!

    In terms of quitting my day job, I would like to achieve a different balance. Ideally, I would go to part time on the "job" and full-time with jewelry creation. I want to line up some wholesale accounts, and I'm okay with production work. I figure there are many hours of boredom with my regular job, so why should I expect every minute of jewelry making to be an exciting, creative endeavor?

    Ultimately, we each have to find our own right balance. It's different for each person, and it can change over time. Honor your own truth and you can't go wrong.

  11. yeah, Wendy, "part time" day job would be my ideal too! i'm afraid if i was cooped up at home 40 hours a week i'd go nuts! i'd need work outside the house for both variety and exposure to the "outside world".

  12. I, like most of the commenters, have many of the same feelings you have. I feel blessed to have discovered jewelry making, because I mostly love it. I fantasize about quitting my day job and doing jewelry full time, but I'm no where near being able to do that. Sometimes it relaxes me, but most of the time I just sit there looking at and organizing the beads. I can't focus!! I have trouble getting started, even when I have an idea of what I want to make. I would love to "bang out" finished pieces, but it just doesn't work like that. I seem to do better when I have a project to do for someone else, with a specific color or bead they want. It's easier some how when I have outside direction. I also have trouble using my "favorite" beads. If I really love a bead, I'll likely never use it!
    Hang in there. Your creations, how ever you create them, are phenomenal!

  13. I lost my muse when we acquired a permanent house guest for a year and a half. She never really came back. Making jewelry doesn't really create anxiety for me, but it does create confusion and then disinterest as I struggle to figure out what will go together.

    I have made several art bead purchases over the last month and am sure I will be buying more next weekend at BeadFest. Perhaps this will all inspire me to pull out all my jewelry making supplies and beads in another week and begin creating again.

  14. I don't think I could add much more to what has been said except, "Thank God I Am Not Alone!" Thank you for this insight into your creative life. I have so many projects started. Laying around in bins. Picked apart, hanging out with bead stoppers, or wire wrapped beads sitting in piles. I hate that fear and I hate that I hate that fear. Then I'm fearful that the hate of the fear will never go away. ETC. Your jewelry is amazing and the emotional investment shows.

  15. "Circling" Love it! I can totally relate. - Whitney (Happy Mango Beads)

  16. I must have the same mood disorder because you're describing me to a T. There are days when I avoid anything to do with jewelry making and have absolutely NO idea how I even thought I could do it at all. And then there are days when I make a million things and am happy doing it.

    I've had customers say the same thing -- how much FUN it must be -- and I think of all the invoicing and entering receipts into Quickbooks and keeping up with taxes and photographing jewelry and keeping up a web site -- all that stuff that's NOT creative -- and I just have to smile and laugh a little. Fun? Only sometimes. Yet I do it.