In the Company of Women: Wisdom and Advice on the Creative Life from Beloved Women Artists, Makers, and Entrepreneurs
Neko Case, Nikki Giovani, Tavi Gevinson, Maira Kalman, Debbie Millman, Carrie Brownstein, and more.
By Maria Popova
“Women had always made a significant contribution to the development of human civilization, but these were consistently ignored, denied, or trivialized,” artist Judy Chicago wrote at the height of the women’s liberation movement in her iconic 1979 celebration of women’s place in creative culture. Exactly half a century earlier, Virginia Woolf had famously insisted that a woman must have money and a room of her own in order to create. Today, as we awaken to a world in which equality is in real and imminent danger of being tossed into a time machine, we have to wonder what it takes to counter the forces determined to ignore, deny, or trivialize women’s work. A powerful counter-force of visibility is to be found in shining a light on the rooms — the studios, boardrooms, showrooms, classrooms, and mansions of the mind — in which today’s creative women make their work, make their money, and make themselves.
That’s what Design*Sponge founder Grace Bonney offers with In the Company of Women (public library) — an invigorating and empowering collection of life-earned wisdom and practical advice from more than one hundred diverse women artists and entrepreneurs: painters, poets, designers, ceramicists, illustrators, actors, chefs, typographers, tattoo artists, and other creative mavericks from a kaleidoscope of ethnicities, orientations, and backgrounds spanning four generations.
Echoing pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin’s poignant words about the importance of cultural modeling, Bonney writes in the introduction:
Activist Marian Wright Edelman said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Visibility is one of the most powerful tools we have in inspiring people to pursue their dreams and educating them about all the amazing options that exist.
Swiss graphic designer, entrepreneur, and Swiss-Miss creator Tina Roth Eisenberg attests to this sentiment with her own formative experience:
When I was about seven, on vacation in the South of France, I watched my uncle draw type. I asked him, “What are you doing?” And he said, “I am working!” I was confused, as in my understanding he was just doodling, drawing, having fun. So I followed up, saying, “Working as in making money?” And he just said, “Yep!” I was a kid who was never not drawing. It was as if a lightbulb went off in my head. “I can make money off drawing type? Drawing can be my profession?” This makes me understand how important it is to expose my kids to as many different “worlds” as possible.
Nearly a century after Virginia Woolf captured the perennial specter of self-doubt in creative work, author and television host Janet Mock offers:
A consistent fear is: Am I doing enough? Does my work really matter? These thoughts plague many people, and I see it as common. What I always have to remind myself is that it is okay to recognize [such] doubt but that it cannot stay for long. It’s a visitor that ensures I am always cognizant of where I am with myself and my work.
Like John Steinbeck, artist, architect, sculptor, and designer Maya Lin folds that inevitable self-doubt into the creative process itself and uses it as fuel for work:
My process in creativity has always been about doubt and worrying about the project, then exploration, then finding and making the work — I tend to take myself and the work apart a lot in the process before finally figuring it out.
Poet Nikki Giovanni echoes Sister Corita Kent’s famous assertion that “there’s no win and no fail, there’s only make,” and offers a grounding, elevating perspective on the fear of failure that lurks beneath self-doubt:
Mistakes are a fact of life; they are building blocks, stepping-stones, the way we learn new things. Columbus wasn’t looking for a New World, he was searching for a route to spices. All mistakes teach us something, so there are, in reality, no mistakes. Just things we learn.
Artist, educator, and radio host Debbie Millman shares her professional motto:
Busy is a decision. We do the things we want to do, period. If we say we are too busy, it is just shorthand for the thing being “not important enough” or “not a priority.” Busy is not a badge. You don’t find the time to make things, you make the time to do things. If I want to do something, I don’t let busy stand int he way. I make the time to do it.
She reflects on the words of wisdom that most inspire and motivate her:
I was interviewing the great writer Dani Shapiro, and we were talking about the role of confidence in success. She stated that she felt that confidence wasn’t as important as courage, and that the action to do something was much more critical to success than the idea that you feel confident about doing it. The notion that courage is more important than confidence has stayed with me ever since.
She builds on this sentiment when asked about her definition of success:
I think success is a practice, sort of like love or happiness.
Reflecting on what she most admires in other creative women, musician Thao Nguyen echoes Georgia O’Keeffe’s immortal words on success in creative work and offers:
I admire their fire and their empathy, their devotion to what they make and the consistent return to work, no matter the perceived success or failure. I admire these things because I believe them to be what is most important about creativity, and at my best, they are what I strive most to meet and inhabit.
In answering a question about learning from a mistake that led to success, Nguyen embodies one of the most rewarding aspects of the book — the women’s courageous willingness to inhabit the vulnerability of discussing the darkest and most difficult aspects of their professional, and often personal, lives:
My greatest professional mistake has been complacency. At the time in question I was dissatisfied and depressed with my work and my professional progress in general. I just sank into a sort of lulling lament. I had to learn that complacency got me there, and the only thing to do was shut up and get it together. Also, a huge thing I had to learn was not to compare my career to the careers of others. Compare and despair. It’s helpful to take note of other people’s success and funnel it into motivation, using their successes as examples and benchmarks.
My self-worth is separate from my creative work and any response it may or may not elicit.
Artist and illustrator Ping Zhu echoes Thoreau’s definition of success and approaches the question from a similar angle:
Success is contextual and fleeting, so when things are harmonious, even for a moment, I try to savor it.
Musician Neko Case looks back on her semi-accidental trajectory away from the mainstream music industry:
The thing I’m most grateful to have missed out on was being signed by a major label… Having people near who won’t be yes-men can be your biggest asset.
Pioneering graphic designer Louise Fili, who has paved the way for women in design, reflects on a defining choice she made when she was first starting out — a choice that stands as a testament to the power of personal integrity in effecting cultural change:
When I started my business, it was the pre-Google era, which meant that when you named your company, you couldn’t get too creative. After all, people had to find you. I knew I had to name it after myself, which could have been a liability. I suppose that I could have come up with something like “Fili Associates” to look bigger and more important. In the end I chose Louise Fili Ltd because I really wanted to send a message, which was this: If you have a problem with my being female, then I don’t want you as a client.
Artist Maira Kalman shares the best piece of advice she was given when starting out — advice she has been putting into practice for forty glorious years of creative work:
I was told to do what I loved and not to veer from that.
Musician Carrie Brownstein makes a case for building pockets of stillness into one’s daily routine and shares hers:
I have always been a morning person, but now I find myself getting up between five and six a.m. every day. I feel like I am stealing daylight hours being awake so early, and even the largest metropolises are quiet at this hour. The stillness helps me to think. The first thing I do is make coffee and read the paper; feeling engaged and part of the world allows me to orient myself, it posits me in the here and now, it wakes me up. Then I head out on a hike or walk. I don’t bring my phone, but I bring a small notepad. I jot down ideas. Or I don’t. It’s like meditation: there are no wrong thoughts, just being. Then I come home and write.
When asked about the best piece of business advice she was given while starting out, writer, editor, and media entrepreneur Tavi Gevinson offers a sort of modernist Zen koan with a dual meaning:
To a question about the character trait of which she is proudest, she answers:
I have a physical aversion to wasting time. It helps to recognize self-doubt as such.
Chef and author Samin Nosrat reflects on the formative dreams and experiences that coalesced into becoming who she is:
As a little girl, I adored and admired by aunt Ziba, who lived with us while she was in college. She had a part-time job shelving books in the university library. So I wanted to be a librarian, just like her, when I grew up.
In high school, my English teacher and cross-country coach changed my life. Tom Dorman was the first feminist I ever met. He taught me to change a tire, to love the natural world, and to question authority. He also gave me a subscription to The New Yorker and told me that I could write. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to be a writer. Even as I began my cooking career, I never abandoned the idea that one day I’d write books.
When asked what she thinks the world needs more of and what less of, Nosrat replies with an homage to artist Susan O’Malley, who died suddenly just before giving birth to her twin girls:
In the words of the tragically late, luminous artist Susan O’Malley, “Less Internet, More Love.”
Reflecting on her coping mechanism for setbacks and moments of self-doubt, author and activist Dominique Browning shares her seven-step toolkit for resilience — one as applicable to our personal struggles in life and work as it is to our shared cultural predicaments:
- Let yourself boil over with fury, and vent, rage, curse, rain down wrath, and tear out your hair. (But try not to do it publicly. And certainly not online.)
- Let yourself mourn. Setbacks are sad. Maybe even depressing — but don’t confuse the two. Let yourself feel the sadness of loss.
- Get moving. You don’t want that sadness to tip into a paralyzing depression. So get out and take a walk, several times a day. Feel the air move against your cheeks. Feel forward momentum.
- Learn to ask for help. Most successful people get there by being strong and independent. We help others. It is harder to learn to ask when we need help — and to realize that admitting it is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of respect for what others can contribute to your life.
- Turn your thinking upside down: That wasn’t a setback. It was an opportunity to re-create.
- Know fear, and honor it. When you feel fear, that’s when you are growing.
- Stop negative thinking: Just stop. Force it. Including the arrogance of thinking everything was your fault. You aren’t really in control of much. Bad luck happens. Now what are you going to do about it? That’s the really interesting — and even thrilling — part.
Complement In the Company of Women, which features more wisdom from such celebrated creators as Eileen Fisher, Julia Turshen, Thelma Golden, Roxane Gay, Mary Lambert, Carson Ellis, and Julia Rothman, with this illustrated celebration of trailblazing women in science and some of today’s greatest artists on courage, creativity, and success.
For the making-of story behind the project, itself a feat of entrepreneurial ingenuity and creative determination, listen to Bonney’s terrific Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman:
Published November 23, 2016