Each Creativity Case Study is an intimate look into a personal, creative world. These longitudinal conversations explore lowercase art -- the ways individuals create private meaning -- and the way lowercase art weaves threads through our lives.
This is the first conversation in the Creativity Case Study with Tamara Holland. I'll check in with her again a couple of times at 6 to 8 month intervals for the follow-up conversations.
Download the full conversation to listen at your leisure (mp3 format, run time 1:03:18), or continue reading for the spiffy-fied transcript with links and photos.
AVL: Hello everyone! Today we are talking with Tamara Holland, a woman of many handles and facets. Good morning, Tamara!
TH: Good morning, Andrea! [Noted: Tamara's side of the conversation is shown with TH]
AVL: (laughing) So when we were talking about how to start our conversation today, and we were talking about the many handles and facets, you mentioned all the different names you have and all the different projects. We also talked about not having to choose or be singular, choosing intentionally to be diverse. What are some of the diverse things on your plate right now?
TH: I’m feeling like I’m having too many diverse things on my plate right now (laughter). I’ve been juggling many, many balls for the last two years, and I’m feeling a need to sift through and see which ones I’m most interested in, shift focus there and let somethings go. Currently, I have several card lines that I market in my art business, Bean Up the Nose Art. I have just finished and am self-publishing this month a Roman crime thriller, and I also write a ton on social media. I bartend, which I think of as its own brand of art (laughing), and I have all kinds of other things going with my family and things. I have lots and lots of things going on.
AVL: Yeah, you do! I do want to say that these are very fluid and real conversations about personal creativity that lean toward lowercase art — art that you do for yourself in a personal, creative practice — and we’ll also touch on the creative work that you do. From the pieces that you’ve shared, I bet people would not guess, or would not be able to match you, right away, with the bit from your Twitter bio that always stood out to me as, oh, I’ve got to talk more to this woman (laughing). That bit was that you are an ex-death-penalty defense attorney and a recovering control freak.
TH: (laughing) Both still true, still “ex,” and still “recovering."
AVL: How do you get from there to here? What was that creative journey for you? How do you go from, you know, death penalty defense attorney to Bean Up the Nose Art?
TH: Ugh, such a good question. It was basically a matter of survival, frankly. It wasn’t something that I would recommend as a thing to do, just to complete switch careers, because it’s pretty jarring. But if you’re feeling completely dissatisfied in one area and feeling absolutely nurtured and free in the other, it kind of becomes this almost physical thing inside you where you realize I can’t keep doing the thing that’s basically sucking the life out of me at this point when I know that there’s something better going on. So, that’s it. I started doing paper art stuff with friends along the way while I was doing the death penalty stuff as a kind of release and different way to be spending my time when I was getting more and more frustrated with the court system and other lawyers. The creative part of doing art, and frankly also getting on social media and seeing people be very, very creative there and very supportive, caused this kind of shift in my heart to occur. It just became apparent after a very terrible oral argument in my last death penalty case that I just couldn’t do that anymore. I needed to do something that was more life affirming, I guess.
AVL: Mmmm. In our preliminary conversation we talked about creative hunger and about how there’s only so much soul that can be sucked out, and you spoke of art as a way of feeding your soul.
TH: Yes, exactly. That is exactly what it does, and the more I practice it — both in the visual art that I do, and more and more these days in my fiction writing — the more I see how it infuses all of your life, and the more it keeps feeding you and you feed it in this dance. That’s how you know that’s where you’re supposed to be.
TH: I don’t know. It sounds….I once heard (laughing) that ecstatic religious moments or epiphanies, or things like that, one of the hallmarks is you can’t really find words to describe it, and that’s how I feel about art and creativity. As much as ironically, here we are doing an interview (laughter) and I love to talk about it, I still can never find the words to convey exactly how it feels to me and what it means to how I live my life. For lack of a better word, it’s incredibly profound. Once I started having that, things in my life that didn’t feel that way, I was also compelled to let go of which is pretty scary.
AVL: That all makes so much sense to me. I’ve done a lot of contemplation on this whole difference between art, and where that comes from and where it sits, and why it is so hard sometimes to verbalize it or articulate it. I think because it is so fundamental to us it’s kind of below our cognition. It’s been a part of us since before we were these rational, thinking beings.
TH: I think that’s exactly right. It feels like the animal part of us, also for lack of a better word (laughter). That part that’s how your bones fit and how your blood flows, and how you choose to spend your time seeking whatever you seek in an unconscious way, instead of all the other stuff that we layer on top of that.
AVL: It’s fascinating to me that we believe…the collective we…that there’s so much emphasis on intellect being something cognitive, and how it dismisses all this other information and intellect that is more emotional. I think that’s where art and intuition live.
TH: I agree, and I also agree that there’s such a focus on being able to explain things and track things and know how things go, that intellectual exercise of reasoning. I think so much of art and the process and inspiration is this kind of mysterious unfolding that you’re just participating in. I don’t want that to go away (laughing). I don’t want it to be explained out of existence, and I don’t think it ever will be because it can’t. It’s beyond that, like you were just saying. It’s underneath and below, and unreachable by the parts of our brain that explain. It’s really interesting how much we spend our time still trying to wrestle with it.
AVL: Mmmhmmm. And I do think it’s something that unless someone has experienced that type of — I talk about creative awakenings a lot — unless they’ve felt that awaken in themselves and experienced it first hand, it’s one of those things you related to by proxy, by thinking about it. Like, ok, that makes sense to me sort of, but I don’t know what that feels like.
TH: Yes, but I’ve heard it exists and therefore I’m going to trust the process (laughing). Maybe that’s what the words are for, to be like little bread crumbs (laughing) until you get to have that actual feeling in your body.
AVL: When you were talking about ecstatic religion and epiphany moments, I was thinking about my personal mindfulness practice. There was a period of time a couple of years ago where I was on this mission, I was going to teach mindfulness to people who didn’t want to do it in conventional ways or whatever because, you know, I’m rebellious like that (laughter).
TH: And that’s what we love about you (laughing).
AVL: It’s a positive theme (laughing). At some point I realized I wanted to just retain that practice for myself and not necessarily teach it. I moved into my own creative expression, but I don’t feel like anything really shifted. I feel like a lot of the art I do and a lot of the personal creativity I do is really still a form of mindfulness, this form of mindfully noticing the world and just being aware of it and accepting all paradox and messiness, and seeing what I can do with that.
TH: Oh my god, I love that you said that (laughing). That is exactly…the older I get, the more I feel like paradox and the messiness and the mystery…all of that … it’s so weird. It feels like, for me anyway because I can’t speak for other people (and maybe that’s the recovering control freak part), I feel like so much of the first half of my life was trying to fix things, stamp out the mystery, make things more streamlined, understand things, have that kind of cognitive grasp on stuff. Now, the more time I spend in art, the more there is that acceptance and gratitude for things that used to drive me crazy, like the paradox (laughter), like the mess, like the unknowable, like you have to wait and see how something turns out. The engine of the universe is driving something instead of us, instead of us doing it all and being in control of everything. The more I can accept that and be in the moment with it, the more magic there is in life.
AVL: Mmmmm, agreed. I sometimes wonder what happened to my brain to make me so comfortable with uncertainty. I used to be an engineer. I used to be a person who billed myself as a problem solver. That was one of my strengths. I can solve problems. I remember there was a point where I was working on a resume or something, and I looked at that and realized I don’t want to solve anyone’s problems. I don’t want everyone coming to me with their problems, and what’s the answer, what’s the solution (laughter). This is boring shit! (laughter).
TH: I know! From listening to you, you hit the nail on the head in what I was going to say. I think it was just a sense of exhaustion. I turned to these darker sides of mystery and acceptance (laughing) out of just exhaustion of feeling like everything needed to be solved, because a) you can’t, and b) there’s a never-ending supply of more messes. You just finally go, maybe we’re just supposed to sit with the mess and see how things go. That’s not to say we should be completely irresponsible. It’s not that. It’s not let everything go and let the chips fall where they may. There needs to be some kind of balance where you’re still thinking there is a future you need to be providing for yourself and take care of things. But beyond that, the kind of micromanaging of every minute? That has lost any sense of pull or desire for me at all. In fact, I almost have an allergic reaction to it now. [13:44]
AVL: (laughing) So do I. I used to work in factories. Everything is about efficiency and productivity. You can only squeeze that turnip for so long, I think. I got out of process engineering and quality engineering right about the time that Six Sigma process and all that were really hitting their peak. I refused to get certified. I have no interest in this. I understand it’s done great things and it saves companies money, but also removes so much serendipity and so much organic innovation from the process.
TH: Exactly, and my inner cheerleader for you is going, 'Yes, don’t remove the serendipity. Don’t remove the opportunity for serendipity.’ (laughter) That downside of efficiency is that it feels like it removes that.
AVL: It does, because there’s a little bit of messiness that needs to happen. I think of beauty as being something a little bit imperfect. You have to have something like that that gets your attention. Nobody is interested in the thing that runs right on time, predictably — that becomes something to tune out.
TH: That is true. It doesn’t have that little thing that catches, like when you’re wearing a shirt and the label scratches you on the back (laughter). You always know you have that shirt on (laughing). In a way, when everything fits, it just becomes part of the background.
AVL: I haven’t got to that point yet with labels on the back of shirts, but (laughter) I do get what you’re saying. I’m thinking about how, if I ran a company, I would be a nightmare case for whatever management consultants would eventually have to come in. ‘You should run your system this way, and you should do this, and you should optimize.’ Meh, I don’t want to, sorry. (laughing)
TH: I know, I know.
AVL: I think its more of a spark, going back to when you turned towards creativity, when you started noticing that was actually feeding you and not depleting you. If we go back in time before you were an attorney, did you have a creative calling then? Did you feel your creative muse tapping you on the shoulder?
TH: I knew from the time I was five years old — when you’re in first grade and you learn how to write and you learn how to read, at least that’s when we did then and I think kids do it in kindergarten now — first grade I totally remember the magic and rush of being able to write sentences and read stories. I knew from then that I need to write. It’s been a really long journey for me because there’s so much wrapped in: are you a writer? What makes you a writer? Do you have to publish something? Blahblablahblah, all those kinds of things when you actually claim your status as a writer. For the longest time, even though I wrote all kinds of different things, I never considered myself a writer. It’s just now. I have a couple of ebooks out on the art business and I wrote a children’s book many decades ago, and now I have this novel coming out. And I’ve written some screenplays that haven’t found homes. But it’s really just right now that my creative title for myself that I’m willing to say out loud to the world is, I’m a writer. That’s the really long answer to your question of if I had creative leanings before I was a lawyer, and yes, but I think I was too afraid at that point to step into them.
AVL: Mmmm. I think it’s such a loaded term. There’s a part of us that wants to show ourselves to the world and say, yes, I’m an artist, I’m a writer, because we feel like we’ve arrived in that knowing, but there’s also the part where I don’t want to say it because it’s loaded with all these other things. Whenever I tell people that I’m an artist, their first question is always, ‘What type of artist are you?’ Do you paint? Are you a sculptor? Why do I have to choose one? Going back to not being singular, all of it. I do all of it (laughing).
TH: Exactly, exactly. And I think there’s also some kind of test or judgement or something that if you’re not making your living doing something, you can’t say that’s what you are.
TH: I think that’s also there, too. Oh, that’s not really what you are, that’s just a hobby you have.
TH: As if just a hobby isn’t good enough, or what is your hobby or what is your work. How do you categorize it? I don’t know.
AVL: I went to an event with my husband earlier this year. My husband works in the aerospace industry and it was an aerospace industry event, so there weren’t many people like me, I thought, to talk to. I’ve gone to these events before and just kind of presented my most non-random self (laughter), but at this event, I thought, screw that. I’m just going to talk to people about their creative outlets. I would have these conversations where people would tell me about the work they do and what they do to get paid, then I’d ask, ‘Do you have a creative outlet?’ I remember one man that I talked to, it’s like 20 years dropped off his face in age. He just lit up telling me about how much he loved gardening, and how his whole week was just getting through the week so that Friday when work was done, he could go home, get up early Saturday morning, and work in his garden. I talked to another man who wrote songs. He had a basement studio, and that’s what he did as his creative outlet. The way people talked about it and the energy they brought to it, I thought, why do we ask people what they do professionally anymore? Nobody is really, oh well, I do this, or I do that. There are the rare cases when somebody is really excited about it, but it’s rare. I always hated answering that question and I don’t even ask it any more.
TH: (laughing) Good for you, start the revolution (laughter). Tell me what makes you feel 20 years younger, is the question (laughter).
AVL: Right now I have the problem, again on the theme of not wanting to narrow down or be so singular about things, even now people ask what I’m working on or what I do, and I’m perfectly comfortable now just saying that I don’t know. I don’t have a label I can put on it.
TH: That is a good way to explain it, too, because there’s this weird thing about communication. People can’t, well, I don’t know if they can’t, but maybe our timing and the way we filter things, I think it’s hard for people to hear the complexity of something so if you do find a way to get a shorthand version of what it is that it means inside, I think that’s a really effective way to be. It’s not to diminish the full experience of what you’re having in your life about it, but I’m not sure about the human capacity in quick conversations to even be able to pick up on lengthier answers.
AVL: Right, and going back to the comfort with uncertainty and paradox, and being able to just accept that that’s there, being able to accept that complexity…you and I have both been in periods of our lives when we were not that way (laughter). You also have this mismatch of people who are very comfortable — I don’t want to say very comfortable — people who are comfortable with that type of complexity existing, and people who say no, this needs to be clear, this needs to be defined. What happens when those groups interact with each other...(laughter)
TH: Yes, that’s a really good way of putting it. Yep, yep.
AVL: Is there…hmmm…I’m thinking about, to sound real technical, when you were in your lawyering phase (laughing), what would you have wanted to hear? If there is somebody in those shoes right now, who is kind of in the situation in their life where they are being depleted and exhausted but still pushing the boulder, what do you want them to hear?
TH: Don’t push the boulder. (laughter) Stop pushing the boulder. Let the boulder roll back down the hill. Save yourself, because it’s like the airplane mask dropping down in a loss-of-altitude situation. You have to put on your own mask before you can save other people? I am all about that now in life. If you are so depleted that you are running on empty, we think that we are helping people, but I don’t really think that we’re helping people, and we’re certainly not helping ourselves. I think we have to be more full to be able to make the magic that’s ours to do possible. I don’t think operating when you’re running on empty is a) sustainable, pretty soon something is going to happen where you’re going to burn out health-wise, emotion-wise, addiction-wise, all those problems, and b) I think that’s one of our culture’s myths, that keep going that direction no matter what otherwise you’re a failure or a quitter. I’ve give up that model of thinking. I don’t think it works that way. I don’t see it working that way. I don’t see evidence that that’s true.
AVL: I don’t either. The only times where I’ve really seen where that stick-to-itiveness has paid off and is fulfilling is for people who are very passionate about whatever work they do, it’s because it fills them up in some way.
TH: Exactly. I like sticking with something that is feeding you, and I do think that most things worthwhile are long haul processes. I do think that. There are moments of epiphany and brilliance where it just hits you out of the blue and works in an instant, but thinking that’s going to happen all the time is not sustainable creatively. Yes, there’s the long haul aspect, but unless something is feeding you along the way, I don’t think that’s the way to go. [27:03]
AVL: There is a book that I think I’ve referenced in every case study so far, so I should just put it at the beginning and say I’m going to talk about this book at some point in the conversation, and it’s Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Are you familiar with this book?
TH: I’m familiar with Twyla Tharp but not with that book.
AVL: So Chapter 6 ...
TH: (laughing) I just sounded like a lawyer. (laughter)
AVL: I love it! Chapter 6 in this book talks about what she calls ‘scratching.’ For me, that’s all about lowercase art. Even if you do creative work for a living — she’s a choreographer and she has quite a significant body of work as a choreographer — but that doesn’t meant that she only works on the projects. She always has a way of playing, of having creative play and experimenting, and like she says, scratching. Playing with inspiration. That is what feeds her creativity. It’s also a way for her to allow a little bit of uncertainty, or if something is not working or needs to change, she’s got this little playground or this place where she can go mentally that is very open to change and malleability. I wonder if always having something like that no matter what you’re working on, always having a place that you can …I feel like I’m rambling. Do you get what I’m saying? (laughing)
TH: You’re not rambling. Again, it’s one of those hard concepts to get words to wrap around. You’re not rambling, it’s the nature of the beast. I have been thinking about that a lot lately. Actually, from reading your case studies and your whole idea of lowercase art versus art that you put out into the world. I have been realizing that for the last couple of years, everything that I’ve been making art-wise has been for public consumption. Like, showing it, often selling it, it’s always out there. I think part of that was my creative opening process of feeling like I am going to put myself out in the world in ways that I wasn’t before. It was a kind of vulnerability opening, and being brave enough to step into it fully. But I’m also noticing that after a couple of years of doing that, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to do it that way anymore. It has to do with my visual art business, and I’ve been going through really, really big shifts with that this Fall that I’ve been quiet about because I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do yet. I’m really feeling like I want my visual stuff to be more for me instead of so out there in the world right now, so that shift is occurring. From, being more — if you want to use lowercase and capital — “capital” art oriented the last couple of years as a way of rebelling against being a playing-it-close-to-the-vest lawyer, now I feel like I’m a bit more...I’ve done that and I’m feeling the need to shift it up again and have part of this be for me and my own personal playground instead of having everything be out there. Not because there’s anything wrong with everything being out there, it’s not that I feel too vulnerable. I don’t know. It’s following that creative muse spirit. (laughing) I do what the little voices tell me (laughter), and a couple of years ago they told me be out there. Now they’re telling me to maybe be a little more inward with this stuff. So, I give very long answers to your questions. Sorry about that. (laughing)
AVL: No, I like them, and I can relate to them. I do think there’s and ebb and flow because as you bring that closer to you, you’re also getting more public with your writing.
TH: Maybe that’s it. Maybe I’m feeling this…I don’t know. There’s definitely a shift occurring inside. I have loved being out there with my visual art for years. It has just brought me total joy and total affirmation after all the years of being a post-conviction death penalty attorney in California where you never win, and people kind of shit on you basically for what you do for a living, and other lawyers aren’t very nice to each other, either. There was a depletion in affirmation. When I was of course putting my visual art out in the world, there were these little rays of hope, like, that’s cool and I like that. I felt like I got to resonate with other people in a way I never did as a lawyer. It was very fulfilling. Maybe that’s what that was about in that period, and now there’s another kind of shift occurring, and because it’s all mysterious I don’t know where it’s going or why it’s here. I do know that my job is to follow it (laughter), and it’s saying go inward on the visual stuff so that’s what’s up next with that.
AVL: Yeah. I have a couple of projects that I’ve definitely pulled inward or I’ve paused, not because I don’t want to do them, but sometimes they’re just not for public consumption yet.
TH: Yes, and there’s kind of a feeling of I don’t really care to know what other people think of this. That’s not what it’s about. It’s just a way of exploring on your own and kind of being your own friend instead of having any input on what other people resonate to or not. You know what? I’m so happy that we’re talking about this (laughter) because it’s coming to me as you allow me to ramble here (laugher). It starts to color what you do when you get responses from people. It’s human tendency to want affirmation. When someone likes what you do, that’s a really powerful thing. So I think I’m feeling creatively…unsure about what I’m doing visually because it kind of feels like I’m keeping in that same vein that I know people like, and it’s making me feel odd creatively. Like not taking a risk. Like I’m not seeing what’s next. I’m not being adventurous. I’m more plugged into that feeling of checking your life on Facebook, that kind of thing that happens when you’re out there in the world. You know, did you like that? And when you find when people do, oh my gosh that’s great. It’s a little bit like a drug. It’s weird to be ‘complaining’ about somebody liking something because who doesn’t want that? And it’s a wonderful feeling, but it does have it’s downside for creativity. You stop doing other things. You’re not allowing the next thing to happen because you’re plugged into what you’ve already seen works.
AVL: Mmmhmmm. It’s playing to the likes, I guess, or the Like button.
TH: Yes, exactly, and that is a very hard thing to resist because it does feel really good.
AVL: It does. And then I get to a point sometimes where I feel like I’ve picked up momentum for a particular thing or a particular style, and people expect to see that —
AVL: — and then I feel like, ok, I don’t necessarily want ‘That’s so great, that’s so great.’ What does it take to get you to say, ‘Whoa, that was unexpected’? (laughter) No one’s ever really going to say that in public, you know, and I wish there was a button for ‘I didn’t see that coming’ because that’s the button I actually want to hit. (laughter)
TH: I know. The Like button is very limited. It’s very powerful and it’s very limited (laughing).
AVL: I think there needs to be the fist bump button for ‘Yep, solidarity, I get it, I see it,’ and ‘Wow that’s different.’ (laughing)
TH: I guess that’s what the comment section is for (laughing).
AVL: If I want to see more of that, that’s something I could embody a bit more myself, looking for risks I saw people taking and saying that I didn’t see it coming and it’s so awesome to see you take that step, you know?
TH: It’s totally true, and that’s also what’s been folding into my feeling on this. It fascinates me how social media works (laughter). Thinking about our conversation today, I was thinking about where I write, and I was realizing so much of where I write is on Twitter on Facebook, and so does the world. I don’t think people ever used to write as much as they do now that there’s Facebook. People who never used to think of themselves as writers are writing things on Facebook. They write long posts. They write short, little pissy things. They write all kinds of stuff all the time. They post things that are written. It’s like there’s this deluge of little bits of writing that we were never exposed to before and that we’re all doing. To me right now, it’s in a period where it’s all starting to look the same because I think we read the same stuff, we write the same way. It’s like it’s in this period of that’s awesome and now it sounds the same because we’re all playing in the same pool. Then what does creativity do? That’s where the point is. [38:59]
AVL: I do notice how much writing there is because I’m there, I’m on social media...
TH: I’m the worst offender. I have like 60,000 tweets (laughing) so I’m not judging anybody.
AVL: You are one of the conversationalists on Twitter. That was one of the reasons why Twitter became, in my mind, so attractive. It was the conversations you could have on there. I didn’t really mind if people said here’s the shit I made, buy my stuff, if they were also showing up to have a conversation.
TH: That’s exactly how I feel. I got no problem with people selling their stuff because I do it and that’s how we try to make our livings. But engage with people. It’s the people who are the cool things. If they happen to like you and like your product, awesome. But the fun is playing with people.
AVL: Yes. I stopped scheduling tweets a long time ago because I didn’t want to tweet something and have somebody comment on it, and me not be there. If I’m going to say something and I’m not there to be in the conversation, what’s the point? (laughing)
TH: I totally agree. I’m 100% manual, too. I don’t even have whatever the apps are to manage your Twitter account. Nope. That’s just me.
AVL: The pool… my rebellious spirit gets antsy when the pool all starts looking the same, when everyone is talking the same, when people are telling the same stories. I go on these mass unfollows about twice a year, maybe. This year I dumped almost everyone who was a life coach. Not that I have anything against life coaches, it’s just if you follow 100 of them, it’s very hard to find someone saying something different. I got rid of almost all business building advice people for online businesses because I don’t care. I started following people who did art, or people who really took a look at the world in a thoughtful way, or contemplative way, and that actually helped me find the joy again in Twitter. I was so close to leaving.
TH: I’m so glad you didn’t because I love you on Twitter. (laughter) I do think that’s key. When you get frustrated with social media, get rid of the people who are irritating you and then you’ll find your tribe.
AVL: Everyone who was live-tweeting Oprah Sunday…I don’t even know what it is…I got rid of them. Not that they didn’t have anything to offer, that was a conversation I wasn’t interested in participating in.
TH: And, what I think what happens, and with the visual art I was making, was it’s a lot about the same kind of positive sound bites which I believe in 100%, but I’m coming to feel like life is so much more complicated and mysterious and cool than the sound bites that people throw out. I feel like I can’t keep participating in the sound bite throwing out. I don’t want to be manufacturing it myself. I like things to be real. And I’m not saying everyone should air their dirty laundry on Twitter or complain all the time on Twitter or whatever, but I like things that are more complicated than the stream of stuff that comes out that it’s just this, or keep going, or blahblahblah only one thing. It’s like, keep going and you also need to rest. You know what I mean?
AVL: I do, I do.
TH: Kind of like what Oprah doesn’t tell you. (laughter) The thing of yes, keep going, and some days you’re going to feel like you need to kill people. She doesn’t say that (laughing).
AVL: She doesn’t talk about the days where you need to remove yourself from human interaction, because, yes.
TH: It’s all too much and you just need to be quiet sometimes.
AVL: (laughing) I do think the positive sound bites have become a commodity in the pool that I’ve been in. Every time I have reinvented the pool, that has been a consistent thing. When I was in art school I was studying product design. I was really set on being a product designer, and then I read something about how…it was a ridiculously scary number and I don’t remember the exact one so I’m just going to say it was in the neighborhood of 3000 Hello Kitty products going on the market every day. This was 12, maybe 14, years ago. I changed my mind about being a product designer at that point because I didn’t want to feed the consumerism.
TH: I feel like what happens with the consumer mentality, what I’ve seen marketing my own art, is that stuff that is fresh doesn’t sell. Stuff that’s been around for about a year or two on the Internet that turns into products, then people buy it. It’s weird. You’re never playing at the creative edge when it comes down to products that people actually buy. People like to think that they buy innovative things, but they kind of really don’t. They buy things that are one generation past that, and that’s not where it’s fun to play in anymore. That’s not the part that feeds your soul when you really like creativity. And I’m not knocking people for doing it, and god knows I’ve done it myself for the past 5 years. It’s become less satisfying. This is doable, but is it…I don’t know. I think a part of the creative soul is there’s always a part of you that’s perpetually dissatisfied. (laughter) That is the driver of the next thing. You don’t rest on the thing that works. Your muse keeps knocking on the door, saying there’s another thing, there’s another thing. If you don’t follow that, it’s dead.
AVL: You keep looking for the tag on the back of the shirt.
TH: Yeah, it’s weird. (laughing)
AVL: I think we can connect this to the whole dissatisfaction that comes with playing to the likes, and playing to the affirmations. Part of the reasons those exist is because it becomes predictable, right? We become a certain presence, we become a predictable presence. There’s something reassuring about that --
TH: And also very marketable, frankly. That’s the way marketing goes. People like predictability. That’s why we have have Starbucks and McDonalds.
AVL: Our whole economy, right?
TH: Exactly. That’s a human thing. I don’t know if it’s specifically American or what, but I want to purchase something I know instead of wow, that’s cool, nobody has that and I want that. There’s a tiny tiny percent of the population that does that. But if you’re going for making a living, you can’t play with the tiny percent of the population. Numbers wise, to make a living, you have to go with the people who want to know what their getting, and that totally stifles your creativity.
AVL: I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of consistency. I’m random. I’m like the queen of random. If somebody asks me what I do, I should just say I am the queen of random.
TH: I love it.
AVL: (laughing) I am all over the map. I change my mind frequently, chasing squirrels all the time and I just love it. It’s so energizing for me in a way that I know for other people, it’s disturbing. Like, holy crap, you are out there. So one of the things I’ve been playing with is the whole notion of consistency. Instead of always giving the same assurance from whatever I’m creating or whatever I’m doing, I’m practicing consistency in showing up. I was talking to my husband about this over breakfast this morning. Instead of ‘always be selling’ or ‘always be closing,’ my thing is ‘always be making.'
AVL: Brené Brown talks about the arena, and how she has no input mechanism for people who are not in the arena getting their asses kicked. She’s in there, doing something different all the time. I think there’s that consistency. I don’t necessarily care that somebody is making something different. I want to see that they’re not flighty, that they’re continuing to show up and they’re dedicated to something.
TH: I love that. I totally love that because there’s a difference between randomness and flakiness, and I’m not a big fan of flakiness. Along with all the different ways I’ve done life, I’ve also had certain habits that I’m plugged into and am grounded in. If I didn’t do them I wouldn’t have the anchors I need to live. I like people who are groundedly random (laughing) instead of just like…flit from thing to thing and nothing ever gets finished. You didn’t stick with it long enough to see if it wanted to become a thing. You know what I mean? There’s a difference between playing in different mediums and shifting as the muse takes you than sitting down, doing one thing for an hour, and not coming back to it for another three months and you decided your’e going to try something else.
AVL: Mmmhmmm. Speaking of flakiness versus randomness, and making unexpected choices and showing up with that, do you remember the first time you shared something creative that you made outside of your inner circle? You had talked about how you were making paper crafts with friends. Do you remember when you broadened outside of that group? Was that on social media or was that in person?
TH: That was actually in person. When I first started the art business, I was averse to social media. (laughter) I thought social media was a bunch of crap, I thought it was awful. I was still in lawyer mode, which is don’t share anything, be extremely private, anything you put out in the world can and will be used against you. It’s just a very, very closed mindset, so I was completely shut off from social media. It was an in-person thing where I had heard a couple of times from friends, ‘I love the cards you make for me, I bet you other people would buy them.’ I had this like, um, competitive/creative/long-shot-taking spirit inside me that thought, hmmm, I wonder if I could just to see what would happen. I made a couple of designs and was running them on a copier at a stationery store/mailbox place where I had my lawyer business PO box. The woman who owned the shop saw them and said, “Those are great. Can I sell them in the store?” (laughing) That was the first time I thought, oh my goodness, this might actually work. And then that just fueled my sense of wanting to see what would happen, and that’s how the whole thing took off.
TH: I think that’s actually what drives my creative spirit, my wanting to see what happens next gene.
AVL: So, along those lines, one of the things I talked about in the most recent Case Study that I did with Melissa Black, we talked about creative contagion and accessibility. Sometimes we need to be exposed to a creative outlet through someone else before we’re aware of it, or before we take it up, or before it becomes accessible to us. Along those lines, what do you want to be exposed to?
TH: (laughing) What a delightful question! (laughter) Oh my goodness. I don’t even know. I’ve never even really thought about it along those lines. You mean what would be the next kind of genre or something?
AVL: It could be anything, yeah. Any type of opportunity that you would want to be exposed to to open a door, if there’s a door you’ve been curious about opening.
AVL: I don’t really get the impression of you holding back from that. I don’t really see you as a person who stands behind the door and waits for somebody to open it. That’s not my impression of you at all (laughter). (53:55)
TH: (laughter) You’re the queen of random? I’m the queen of impatience. (laughter). I will just throw that door open. (laughing) You know what, it’s more of a sense of where I am in my life than the next artistic genre. I feel so happy to be in reading and writing mode at this point that it feels like that’s where I want to hang out for a while. That’s where the muse plays. It’s more of a what would I want to be exposed to. You’re so good, this is like the most vulnerable question in the interview (laughter). I don’t know if it really has anything to do with creativity except for maybe life creativity. My poor little criminal defense post-conviction self that so rarely won anything, and the long-shot-taking me that has also rarely won anything…I would like to be exposed to a period of feeling some wind from the universe beneath my wings in the wind department. It is so far from the way I have done life so far, I would really like to know what happens when that comes into your life. I’m a little bit tired of being the underdog person. Fighting for the underdog, the odds are against you. Trying to do art for a living, the odds are against you. That kind of thing? I would like to have the experience of feeling like, hmmm, this actually worked. Although, see, I have that contrarian part of me. But you get locked into that work and the Like buttons and then you don’t want to do that anymore either, so…(laughing)…I don’t know. I don’t know.
AVL: Well, maybe a little bit of wind, a little bit of change.
TH: Yeah, a little wind, a little bit of change, a little bit of feeling of…trusting the universe more, which I do underneath at the bottom of my core, but in my daily life sometimes I have problems. Maybe that’s a little bit of the wind I’m feeling the need for, a little bit of feeling that yeah, you were on the right track with that.
AVL: Yeah, I get that. One of the things I ask people to do, and we do this in the Art Improv workshops I teach, too — I have people write themselves a postcard with a creative promise or a little reminder, something they’d want to see show up, say, two months from now and I send it to them. (laughter) I love them, and I want to collect them. I don’t take pictures, I don’t write them down because, you know, I don’t want to invade their privacy, but at the same time I love seeing them. I hold on to them for those two months and sometimes they help me, too.
TH: Oh, you’re just the coolest person. (laughter) Go ahead.
AVL: (laughing) If you were to make yourself a creative promise or a reminder, or there was something that you would want — a mantra or whatever — that applies to you right now for wherever you’re at in your creative life, what’s something you would want to hold onto right now?
TH: Stick with Tiberius. (laughing)
TH: He’s the narrator and main character in the book that I’m putting out this month and in the sequels, and also kind of a creative companion and interesting male figure in my life, so, yeah.
AVL: Tell us about this book. Tell us about what you’re working on that you want to share. What’s happening with Tiberius?
TH: What’s happening with Tiberius? Tiberius is an extremely flawed and objectionable but highly wonderful (laughter) man in 60 AD Rome who solves crimes. He has the voice of a 21st century kind of wise guy, that’s how he talks. He’s extremely profane, he’s extremely cynical, conservative. He’s kind of an empire man, but he also has this kind of passionate side that he can’t help but having, and it’s very compassionate and empathic despite the fact that I don’t think he wants to be. He is the driving force of the story, of the novel that is a little bit like Chinatown set in the Roman Empire, not plot-wise, but it centers on water rights and construction things. The book is called The Road Presents Itself, and I am happy to say I love it very much. I’m lucky. It’s a lucky thing to write something that you love.
AVL: And put it out in the world.
TH: Well, we’ll see about that. (laughing) The mystery of the mystery. This is what happens. It’s beyond one’s control. We’ll see what happens.
AVL: These are longitudinal case studies, meaning we will be circling back to you for follow-up conversations a couple of times, 6 to 8 months down the road. When we talk again, you will be at a different phase with this and it will be interesting to hear what’s going on.
TH: Oh, I feel honored that you would do that. Thank you. (laughter)
AVL: Yeah! So we’re at the end.
AVL: It went by super fast. Is there anything else you would want to share or bring up that we should have talked about that we didn’t get to?
TH: Mostly a sense of gratitude for what you’re doing and what you bring to the planet. (laughing) I think you’re wonderful. Don’t let that box you into anything (laughter) with the affirmation. Keep being your random self, but I just want to thank you for the things that you put out there, the way that you show up, the way that you bring people together, the risks you take, and the way you keep conversations going and starting. I think it’s wonderful.
AVL: Thank you. Thank you!
AVL: I am so glad we got to talk today and I think if anyone out there is on Twitter and they want to be connected to a conversationalist on Twitter, someone who is actually is there having conversations with people, and interesting conversations…she’s incredibly kind on Twitter, look for @tamholland on Twitter.
TH: And I will definitely follow you back. (laughter)
AVL: I am just looking at your…I don’t know what it’s called on Twitter, the background on your profile...
TH: I think we call them…oh you mean the writing, the picture behind?
TH: I don’t know. I have no idea what that’s called.
AVL: Right now it says, “The Universe hopes you have your best year yet.”
TH: Yes. That’s one of my greeting card designs that I put up at the very beginning of the year. I’m not one of those people who changes me…I never change my avatar. I hardly ever change my background. I don’t update…you know how on Facebook people are always changing their background or profile picture or whatever that’s called? I never do that. I kind of pick one thing and stick with it for a long time. I posted that in January when it was the beginning of the new year and here it is, November.
AVL: I like it. I think it still holds.
TH: Thank you.
AVL: It’s been a pleasure talking to you today.
TH: Oh thank you. You, too. And thank you for listening to my long-winded answers.
AVL: I loved your long-winded answers. (laughter)
TH: Thank you.