Friday, January 29, 2010

It Gets Me To Thinking. . .

My good friend, Grace Cavalieri, who loves the Savannah's Rose soaps I make, sent me a book for my Christmas stocking. It was a new book published by Mendez Publications, written by a woman named Birdie - Birdie Jaworski - who had been, for many years, an Avon representative. It's called Don't Shoot! I'm Just The Avon Lady!, and it is one of the most delightful tales I've read in a long time. I couldn't put it down. Is it "high literature?" No, probably not, but it is one delightful, hang-on-for-dear-life ride into the mind and extraordinarily adventurous life of one of the most creative women I've heard about in a long, long time.

The book is about more than Birdie's selling of Avon, of course: it's about her life as a mother of two young boys, her life as a woman hitting middle-age and not being married and in love with a man. It's about her life in California among the rich-and-famous, her life as someone who sells beauty products and barely makes sufficient money each "campaign" to cover her living costs. It's about living in the shadow of the beautiful people of wealth and means, about rubbing skinned elbows with those who live (within eyeshot of her own neighborhood) in luxury.

Birdie has a fine eye for the world and, because of this, her readers also get to see the ragged seam that separates the glittering backside of a California life and the underbelly of it that few could bear to look at day after day, much less to live in it - unless they have that magnificent eye Birdie has and also her sense of humor-AND-despair pointing the way as she chatters along merrily, introducing everyone she meets, from the woman who wants wrinkle cream for her monkey, to the mysterious and handsome celebrity "Kevin" who wants to know what she wears under her kilt, to the Oscar Wilde look-alike she peeps at with another stranger one afternoon, to her competitor at Avon who plays dirty and takes home all the awards who she calls "Huge Hair," to her good friend Shanna who, though independent enough to do her own tile-work, manages to fall in heat and love with a young rocker Birdie calls "True Love Mullet Boytoy." It is a fortunate thing that, along the way, we have such good traveling companions as her two boys, Louie and Marty, her Turkish gentleman friend Ulak, a white labrador name Suzie, and a pot-bellied pig named Frankie Bacon.

It's a fine tale and I recommend it to you with one big caveat: if you have home-improvement projects to get done, or soap-making, or cooking and baking to do, or groceries to buy, or beds to make, you'll not get them done because you'll make every excuse you can just to sit a while longer and listen to Birdie tell her stories, from the first chapter ("Baby's Got A Bad, Bad Zit") to "Balls To The Wall" through to "Wherein I Test A Product On An Animal," through to "Grand Slam High Noon At The Denny's," on down to "Jesus Marches On," and on to the final chapter, "Accidental Joy."

But Birdie's story has got me to thinking again about how the making a business of what you do creatively can suck the life-blood joy out of the doing of it. Granted, Birdie doesn't "make" Avon but she's trying to make a living for her and her boys by selling beauty products to everyone she can - and she is one of the MOST creative marketers I have ever encountered, no exceptions. In one chapter of the book, after a week of having lugged her over-stuffed shoulder pack filled with books and skin-care samples and lipstick smudge samples and fragrance bottles up and down the foothills of her California, the usually high-spirited Birdie proclaims miserably that she doesn't even like the stuff anymore.

I've known too many creative women who were happily making soaps, hand-painting old pots, sewing aprons, embroidering and smocking baby clothes, baking delicious desserts - whatever the joy of their heart was - who then set out to build a business of it and, eventually, became overwhelmed, frustrated at the endless bookkeeping required for taxes, weary of standing in lines at the local post office to mail boxes out, weary of managing websites and blogsites no one read or looked at, managing the cost of printing business cards: talented women who finally walked away from it, whatever the "it" was.

There is something about the industrialization of creativity that sucks joy from the doing of it. It's sly, how that happens. One day you're excited because you have your first order come in and, the next day you're scouring the local library for those how-to books about turning your hobby into a profitable business. Months later, you suddenly hear yourself snapping at the cats because they're underfoot mewling and leaving little trails of white cat hair along your pants-legs, bothering you for food just as you're in the middle of a project at the kitchen counter. Sometime later, you absently make a mental note to yourself that troubles you because you see suddenly how you have moved from a part-time hobby into meeting deadlines just like at work, see that you are sacrificing your evenings to "catch up" on orders or book-keeping or updating the website. And your husband, usually so enthusiastic and easy-going and supportive of you, sighs and asks where you want to have dinner out and at what ungodly hour. And then, one morning you wake and lying there all head-achey and dreading leaving the warm bed for another day of "work," you wonder how you got there.

One friend wrote to me last month and said she was taking down her website, yard-saling away her impressive collection of baker's supplies, and giving it all up after having just finished her third year of being in the black. She wrote: "I didn't have time anymore to bake and decorate those holiday cookies that everyone in my family loved because I had to become a production line for months in advance of Christmas just to fill all the pre-holiday orders that were coming in. It was exhausting. I baked night and day, and when I wasn't baking and decorating, I was rushing into town to buy 25-pound bags of organic flour and sugar I could barely carry. Or I was haggling with the egg-man at the corner stand because his temperamental free-range hens had only provided six dozen eggs that morning instead of the twelve dozen eggs I needed for the day's baking. Sure, the business was successful, as far as making money goes. But I didn't love it anymore. I was downright sick of it. I dreaded getting up in the mornings because my back ached from carrying the flour bags and the packages and standing in lines. I went from being a morning person to being an I-hate-morning person. And the very reason I had started making and designing the cookies - because my family loved them and they'd become my trademark addition to the Christmas dessert menu - fell by the wayside: my family had no cookies this year for the holidays. Zero. I threw together a stupid boxed cake mix before I dressed for Christmas dinner and slapped on some pink frosting just before we walked out the door for Mom and Dad's house. No cookies this year for the nieces and nephews. No cookies for Grammy who gummed them into soggy crumbs every holiday since she'd fallen and broken her dentures and who happily proclaimed each Christmas that I made the best danged cookies in the world. They had none this year. Heck, they barely had me, I was so exhausted. I was like the walking dead by Christmas dinner."

Her story isn't an unusual story - it might even have been my story had I not stepped back, fast, from where I saw I was headed in trying to make a "business" out of what I designed and created. This is a cautionary tale. One that's not unusual or new though because, by now, I've heard a dozen or so stories just like hers from ambitious, hard-working women who were "succeeding." Only the small specific details differ from story to story. The frustration is the same, as is the loss of joy in doing what she'd been happily designing and making for years.

I don't know. Maybe, as creative women, we have bought into the Industrial Age hype too quickly, hearing the success stories of others who have made of their creative efforts some thriving cottage industries, or watching the parade of entrepreneurs on Shark Tank each week, and maybe we have done that to what could be called a certain kind of loss of spirit, even when it's all been to our financial gain. Maybe we have believed too easily the hype about "getting rich" from what we do because the people who hawk that kind of riches are only talking about one kind of wealth. (Maybe old Judas wasn't the only one who sold out cheaply for those forty pieces of silver.) Maybe we swam right up to that bright old hook-and-line story about getting rich and we opened our mouths and took it into our gullet. No wonder we are stunned when its sharp little barbs hang in us and we feel like we're about to be reeled in and served up as the entree du jour.