The other day, I was coaching one of our newer makers by phone.
To get to know her line, I flipped through her product listings to get a sense for what the jewelry was all about. Most of the pieces were ornate, creative, asymmetrical confections that were both vintage and fresh. But part of the line was simple brass jewelry.
In our conversation, I asked how she felt about the brass pieces -- is that a direction she was planning to go in?
“Well, I don’t want to!” she explained. “But I got worried that my stuff is too different, so I wanted to play it safe and make pieces that are more similar to the rest of what I’m seeing in stores. The truth is, I love the other stuff. I love finding odd vintage components and turning them into something gorgeous and unique. I’m just not sure anybody is buying that right now.”
My advice to her was to cut the brass pieces altogether. They’re not what she loves, they’re not unique in the marketplace, and she doesn’t have a lot of energy around creating them. Plus, they’re confusing. Store owners often scan through a line, to get a sense of it. If the line is scattered or confusing, they tend to wander away, unsure what the line might offer.
The more I thought about this, though, the more I realized that there is so much complexity in this maker’s experience, and in the conversation we had.
In fact, there is a piece of writing I love that illuminates so many of the tensions presented by this maker’s conundrum. In it, George Saunders, the celebrated writer, tells of the years when he was working in a dull corporate setting, commuting through New York winters by bike, barely earning a living, and trying to be a writer. (I really recommend reading the whole piece -- you can find it here -- you’ll be glad you did.)
It’s gorgeous, simple, honest writing. It also captures something essential for those of us who want to make or write or create. So between my maker friend and George Saunders’ insight…
4 Things I Know Are True About Making Your Line Successful + Extraordinary:
1. Make what you know how to make better.
George Saunders shares a time in his writing when he spent years sounding like Hemingway, or Carver, or some other version of himself. And one day, in boredom and frustration, started writing silly, weird, gross poems and illustrating them. This led him to write a short story that used that same off-kilter feel. And he had a realization:
“Suddenly it was as if I’d been getting my ass kicked in an alley somewhere and realized I’d had one arm behind my back. All of my natural abilities, I saw, had been placed, by me, behind a sort of scrim. Among these were: humor, speed, the scatological, irreverence, compression, naughtiness. All I had to do was tear down the scrim and allow those abilities to come to the table.”
Working on it was fun: for the first time in years, I knew what to do. I had no idea what it was ‘about’ or what it was teaching or espousing or anything like that. I just, at every turn, had some feelings about how I might make it better. As goofy as the story was, as far-fetched as its premise seemed, I could feel and see the people in it as real people, and I cared about them. What a relief that was: to work with certainty, toward fun, just for the hell of it.”
Creating what you know how to make better, as odd or different as it may be, is fundamental to creating a successful line over the long term. It’s not always easy to do (I wrote an article on that piece of things here) but it is what you’re trying for.
2. On the other hand, don’t just close your eyes and make whatever you want.
The counterpoint to #1 is subtle, so stick with me. It’s true that you need to make what is authentic to you, what you know how to make better.
But. You also can’t close your eyes and cover your ears and disengage from what your community is inspired by.
There is no art without connection. Art is made when someone creates something true and then is able to close the energetic loop by offering that to someone who responds to it. It takes both pieces -- the making what’s true and the engagement with someone who responds to that work.
Makers who are successful work consistently at the intersection between what people want and what your voice is. The good news is: you don’t need to please everyone. You only need to find a small, passionate group of people that responds to the work. And the truth is that it’s much easier to find those people when you’re clearly making what is true for you, rather than what you think might sell.
3. There’s no rushing it and there’s no crystal ball.
Sometimes makers want me to tell them whether what they’ve created is going to “work.” I can’t. I don’t have a crystal ball and I’ve been proven wrong about a line again and again.
Other makers want to rush the process, growing to large numbers of wholesale accounts without really stopping to watch people’s responses to the work.
How to find the intersection between what people want and what your voice is? Through observation and through experimentation. Observation means becoming an observer of the makers you most respect -- watching how they structure their prices, how their tell their story, how they package in a way that aligns with what they do. Experimentation means that you create what you know how to make better and then you experiment with different ways of connecting with people around that work, exploring who responds to it, whether it needs tweaking to be well-received, and how it’s best packaged and sold. And these processes take time.
4. Store owners want your standout pieces, especially now.
It’s hard being a store owner in this world, in this economy.
But when a store owner carries products that people can’t find at the big box store down the street, she knows that people will choose to shop with her. The more pressure a store owner is under, the more she will want pieces that are unique and beautiful and unexpected and that she knows will sell. That means that store owners tend to buy lines for their standout pieces, not for the dime-a-dozen pieces that might fill out a line. Those standouts almost always come from a maker’s most creative, authentic process -- the very things they make most intuitively and with most passion.
I’ll leave you with a little more of George Saunders. He’s talking about the writer who has just found the writing that’s like him, that is of himself, no matter how humble it may be:
The work he does there is not the work of his masters. It is less. It is more modest; it is messier. It is small and minor.
But at least it’s his.
He sent the trained dog that is his talent off in search of a fat glorious pheasant, and it brought back the lower half of a Barbie doll.
So be it.
Better than being stalled out forever.
He’ll make a collection of lower halves of Barbie dolls and call that a book.
And the thing is: it is a book. That’s what a book is: a failed attempt that, its failure notwithstanding, is sincere and hard-worked and expunged of as much falseness as he could manage, given his limited abilities, and has thus been imbued with a sort of purity.
A book doesn’t have to do everything, I remember saying to myself back then, as a form of consolation; it just has to do something.
So, although this book is short and took seven long years to write, and is truncated and halting, and is, yes, dark and maybe even a little sick in places, I remember the years during which it was being written as some of the richest and most magical of my life, full of hope and love and aspiration and the satisfaction of, finally, making something happen.”