Saturday, November 13, 2010

"you just need a system"--a reply to Lisa Call

Every family I think has their own special sayings. Once my DH got told that I made his life "too cushy". Yes, we repeat that one frequently. Usually with a smile. And I am sure we are not the only ones who have "cat alarm clocks"--they pounce on us at six in the morning to remind us that they  want their breakfast NOW. One of my favorites though came from my step-son, when my DH had misplaced something one too many times. As he said, "You just need to have a system, D--a--a--d." You know how teen-agers can emphasize the word Dad.

It is a good point though. Systems work.  Recently Lisa Call and I began exchanging blog posts on the systems that we use to get work done. Now, for those who don't know Lisa's work, she is a very successful quilt maker who writes a wonderful blog about how she makes her quilts. In a recent blog post, she advocated making todo lists so she knows exactly what she is going to do when she gets into the studio.

I responded that for me the lists were too limiting.  I never know what will happen during the day--I just want to make sure I get something done. We agree that a dialogue would be interesting--what methods work for each of us?

Lisa begins the discussion with a wonderful blog post on how structure leads to creativity. Check it out--even the blog post shows how organized Lisa is. Basically her point is that if she has a plan for what she will do in the studio then she can just work when she is there rather than worrying about what to make. Lots of great hints as to how she works. What do you think?

I think about her posts--how do I proceed? Well, certainly my process is different--just like my circumstances are. I have been supporting myself making art quilts for 29 years. This is what I do. During this time I have gone from living by myself to marrying my wonderful DH. When I was single I would frequently work mornings and evenings and run errands during the afternoons. A regular schedule that gave me time to work and time for myself. I knew I could leave in the afternoon because I had already gotten something done.

About fifteen years ago, I got studio space in town. The town itself--Shelburne Falls--is a delightful tourist destination and while I don't get a lot of traffic through my studio, I try to be open regular hours. After all, I never know when the person who really wants to purchase a big quilt will show up. I have a found that these regular hours make it easier for galleries, designers and others to contact me. Oh I do love these set hours. I don't feel the guilt about working or not working that Lisa mentions--I just show up at work and then at 5 I leave. 

I try to make it so I that I have to work when I am in the studio. No novels. No games. I can work on the Internet. Friends can visit--briefly--but I don't usually no long phone calls. I actually learned this technique from listening to authors on the radio--was it John Updike who said he had to sit by the typewriter for certain hours every morning even if he had nothing to say that day? Some authors force themselves to write even if they are going to tear it up at the end of the day. Others retype what they did the day before to get themselves going. I am constantly listening for more tips and try the ones that interest me. 

I am a morning person--I like to get something done right away--it starts the day out right. Sometimes it is working on a new quilt. Sometimes it is packing an order or applying to a show. I just want that feeling of accomplishment for the rest of the day. By three I may have done as much sewing as I can for that day. Then I make potholders, placemats, fold fabric, vacuum. There is always something to do. Some days I get inspired at four--I start the project, leave myself notes. Still I almost always leave at five.

I just don't like to write it down. I don't do well with those strict charts--it makes me nervous and when I get nervous I don't get work done. Besides, what if the quilt does not cooperate? I try to remain calm--yes, I can solve this challenge or deal with that issue. Lists, charts make me feel less successful. Not good. Even when I have an order due, I may plan my schedule out in my head--calculate the number of rows of hand sewing I have to do,  but rarely do I write it down. I just slog it out one stitch at a time. If I think about how much work I have to do, I get nervous--don't sleep well at night--then I get even less done the next day. Not a good approach.

I already have plenty to get nervous about as it is. There is my love-hate relationship with craft shows. Right now, I really don't want to drive down to the Washington Craft Show. It is a long drive down there and an even longer drive back home. My last long distance drive had far too many adventures to mention. The show may not even be that lucrative--ugh!!! When I get home, I will have to put the studio back together, go grocery shopping and get ready for Thanksgiving Dinner. Will I forget something? Will set-up and take-down go smoothly? What problems will I have to deal with? I try to go one step at a time--reminding myself I can deal with it. I need to sell quilts to make quilts. I love having orders and work to do. I enjoy the feedback I get from the customers browsing at the show. And of course I enjoy the energy of being around so many other great craftspeople.

Again I try to keep myself calm. I like to finish a big piece just before a show--not four days before a show, if you know what I mean. I look around the studio and try to figure out what will sell--these days, that is impossible to do. Work that I think should sell, doesn't. Work that I don't expect to sell does. A couple is planning to come to my studio to buy placemats on Tuesday. I am leaving for the show Wednesday morning--should I make more of those to replace what they may purchase? I think about it and decide--no. Placemats are fun, but not that fun. I can't anticipate what colors they will choose.

I look at the colors of quilts I have in stock--yes, there are colors I could use. But I am getting some back from a show, just after I return from Washington. I don't feel like making a quilt in the "right" colors. There is another piece I have been thinking of--now that excites me. I plan it in my mind. Not too much. I don't want the excitement to dissipate. Dark colors, greys. Dramatic. That should be fun. This morning I will go to the studio and start it--see where it takes me.

OK--that is my system. It is different from Lisa's just like our lives are different. Nothing wrong with that. The most important thing I think is to be aware of what works with you. Don't take my word for it--don't even take Lisa's. Try and see what works for you. Experiment with different systems until you are getting done the work that you want to get done.

And now I must get to work.  This dialogue is fun. It reminds me of a poetry slam. Did you hear the discussion on Here and Now about the poetry slam in Chicago. Each trying to bring his or her best "game" to the competition. It was wonderful--check it out--  No, I didn't answer all of Lisa's points--working in series will be another blog post. And you, how do you work? Feel free to comment--even create your own blog post. Let's keep the dialogue going. I know I am always hunting for more tips and methods.


  1. Great post, Ann! One of our TAFA members from France just posted in our Team Blog how she works: Completely through inspiration!

    I struggle with how to struggle my time. For many years now, I have tried to do computer work in the morning, something active in the afternoon so that I don't turn into a lump of lard and then another project in the evening. I have a couple of shows I like to watch late at night (The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert) and then I usually look for a movie on cable. I like having mindless handwork that I can do then, things that can later be assembled into something more complex.

    But, I really feel overwhelmed by all the projects that I have all around me. Stuff to list on Etsy, house projects, art projects, things that need to be fixed, things that need to be cleaned... I wish that I had a studio like you do, even a separate space like a converted garage or something where I could arrive and leave. It is only when I look back on what has been accomplished in the past months that I realize how much really is coming to fruition.

    I don't work well with lists either, unless there is an event I am planning for or if I have to go shopping. But, my creative work, even work on TAFA is pretty organic, using response and process to move on to the next step. I worked on a quilt several years ago that took 9 months to make, over 1,000 hours. It would have been impossible to plan it out or to schedule time for it. I just always had a workable piece out and picked up daily for a few hours (most of it was handwork). It grew, until it finally was a queen size quilt. I remember hating the last phase, when it was so big, but also feeling so disappointed when it was over. Now I am too impatient to spend that much time on a piece.

    Anyway, we all have to find our comfort zones of how we can work. The key is that we ARE working. Some people become paralyzed by trying to juggle too much. Others thrive on it. So we either have to add on or take off until we can have a safe, creative space.

  2. I had an interesting conversation with a friend about a week ago on this very topic. She has a habit of promising more than she can ever deliver and this is leaving many things undone and a fear of losing a great job opportunity. I tried to help her out by starting her at the deadline and working backwards to see how much time she needed to devote to each task in order to complete it on time. I am not sure if it helped her, but that is something I do for a really far away, needs to be done project. This way, in some way it is always getting worked on. In general, I get up and see what the day brings. Sometimes I have something I know I need to get done so my attention will be on that. My studio is in just one room of my house. I make it a point to really keep EVERYTHING in that room, so when I am in there my family knows I am working. Even my two year old grandson will come to the babygate at the door and say... "LaLa working" and keep moving on. Once in a while we sneak in a quick hug or the ABC song. I think it is the nature of the business, and my mind, to feel like I am never getting enough done quickly enough. When I am working on one thing, my mind is busy deciding on the next. Somedays I can't get as much done as I would like, but somehow by the end of each week I am happy with the progress I have made.
    I gave a baby quilt as a gift this past weekend and that lead to someone buying another one from me. Every little success is success! Goals are important as well. For example, knowing how much to keep on hand to have ready to sell, or how many orders to have on deck. All things I still need to work out, but none the less, I realize it would be good to set the goals. I agree that the key is that we ARE working.... everyday, stitch by stitch, it all comes together. Hey, if I didn't have a name for my business already "stitch by stitch" would be good! Ohhhhh- see what I mean about always thinking... maybe I will design a quilt with that name.Well, just great, now I need to get up and go to work! Ann, I would love to stop by your studio the next time I am near there. I will call first to be sure you are there. It would be nice to meet you and see your work!

  3. I am really appreciative that I can read all this dialogue about working habits. I am just starting myself on a year-long project of 5 very involved quilts. Unlike you I am not depending on a salary from my art, but trying to juggle a salaried job and my artwork into my time. It is the art which makes my soul sing so I have to find a way to manage time to it's fullest in order to complete what I have planned.

    I started using a calendar with big boxes for writing in. I first started putting things to do (like a list) on it but have changed it's function to writing things which have been accomplished. This check off system seems to keep me feeling positive and able to face the next step.

    I too have kept a blog but find lately that it takes so much of my time that I only have been posting very infrequently. Given the opportunity to have computer time, I would rather read your blogs and get some ideas from what I read than spend hours formulating my posts. Thanks again for all the insight into your working habits, it has been very informative.

    Nancy Turbitt

  4. Structuring time is a huge problem for me as well, because I get stuck at the computer, and forget to leave! But I'm a night owl, so getting to the studio at 2 0r 3 gives me at least 5 hours there.
    Someone wrote that keeping one of those weekly page type calendars, and writing down what you accomplish each day helps you to see what you really have accomplished - and maybe where you can use your time better. Plus, if you get one with beautiful art work, you have added inspiration :-)

  5. I believe my way of getting things done falls somewhere between Ann and Lisa -- I'm too easily distractible to actually follow a specific set of goals, but that said, having a rough idea of what I'd like to at least work on does help me accomplish something. My current situation is that I'm responding to requests/commissions on deadline, which means I don't get to follow my own bliss. I can only hope that in the back of my mind somewhere, creative ideas are forming for a series or even just one piece that I can't consciously imagine yet... Thanks for all the perspectives here...