ArtPlace America: Birthdays & Anniversaries Edition

I like birthday parties as a rule, but when attending one leads to new friends, new work, and new travel possibilities, my like grows into love.

Such was the case a year ago last May, when I met Sarah Westlake—esteemed writer, teacher, and editor of the ArtPlace America blog—at a birthday party in (where else?) Brooklyn. It turned out we had some friends, some favorite beers, and some editorial pursuits in common. She told me she might have some work for me in the future, and before parting ways, we exchanged business cards. I was excited, but tried to keep calm, since I’ve learned anything can happen in the wild world of freelancing.

ArtPlace Annual Summit 2018 Polaroid Louisville Kentucky

A vision of things to come
(portrait by the singular Eli Keel: twitter.com/thateli)

Happily, this chance meeting was not my last with Sarah. Fast forward a handful of months, and I was pitching her story ideas and starting to write some posts. (You can peep the first few here, on the topics of: health equity and art; preserving black culture in gentrifying neighborhoods; and a public utility’s investment in their community’s story.)

I was already stoked with the new gig, but when Sarah asked if I could cover a couple of upcoming creative placemaking conferences happening in other states, my stoked-ness increased. While I’ve learned that traveling for work has its ups and downs, I still get a kick out of it. Plus I had never been to Madison, New Jersey (“A Town Right Out of Central Casting“) or Louisville, Kentucky (home of bourbon, baseball bats, and that famous derby), which meant one more uptick on the stoked-o-meter. So I packed my bags and experienced every major public transit typology to help document the Creative Placemaking Leadership Summit’s Northeastern Corridor Conference on May 3 & 4 and the ArtPlace 2018 Annual Summit, May 21 – 23.

If I were to sum up these trips in two words, I would use the words: GOOD STUFF.

My posts from the events are still in process, so I’ll have to leave you with that verbal cliffhanger for now, but I can share a handful of my choice snaps from in and around the proceedings:

Woven tapestry featuring people

One of Ebony G. Patterson’s remarkable photo tapestries
(exhibited at the 21c Museum Hotel Louisville)

Shine Bright cardinal mural downtown Louisville Kentucky

Rad mural in downtown Louisville
(if anyone knows who painted it, please leave a comment!)

Skippy in the trash can

One or another of America’s finer airports, exhorting you to throw your perfectly good food and toiletries into the garbage

A big thank you to Sarah, ArtPlace, and a couple of groovy U.S. states I don’t often get to for extending me such a warm welcome this past year. I hope our relationships can enjoy that most oft-uttered of birthday wishes: many happy returns.

Faces of Work

In my experience, what we might call the architecture of work is not the same for freelancers as it is for full-time employees of organizations. The idea—and the doing—of work hang differently on a sole proprietor’s frame than they do on a company’s. For one thing, when you’re on your own, it’s your job to build the frame itself—as well as to make whatever you’re going to fill in with!

Powersuit Making Workshop at the Wassaic Art Festival 2012

Maybe you’ll make a powersuit!

When you start out to work for yourself, there is no path or plan ahead of you. There is no preexisting ladder to climb or maze to figure out: you have to make your own goals and your own route to reach them. There are no preordained titles to aspire to: you have to decide what you want to be called. There are no rules to chafe against: if the company culture sucks at You LLC, it’s YOU who has to change!

Woman standing in a green garden with a rake

Sarah, YOU should never change! You’re great.

These and many other aspects of work have been on my mind lately. Simultaneously, I’ve recently found myself captivated by others’ musings on work. Rather than try to deduce whether the chicken or the egg came first, I’ll just share two perspectives that have most recently tugged at my brain-strings.

Blonde woman with sewing machine

Another Sarah tugs at another type of strings.

  • “The Spirit of Work” by Marie Corelli. The variously regarded English novelist and mystic touches on lots of potent themes in this fin de siècle essay, such as the attitude of the worker determining the quality of the work; the weirdness of humans trying to elevate and separate themselves from the brilliant workings of nature; the notion that the having of love makes anything easy and the lack of it makes anything hard; the recommendation that everyone should learn a trade as part of their education; the misuse of the word “common” as an insult; and the fact that “‘gentlemen’ are not made by position, but by conduct.”
     
    Man holding cup on roof

    Neil T is a gentleman whether he’s working or working it

    Among many other gems (and some hyperbole I am actually not down with, such as basically suggesting that people never take a day off), Corelli also invokes Goethe, whose “inspiring lines should animate the mind and brace the energies of every worker :—.

    ‘Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute,
    Whatever you can do, or dream you can—begin it;
    Boldness has genius, power, magic in it;
    Only engage,—and then the mind grows heated;
    Begin!—and then the work will be completed.’ ”

    If that doesn’t get you jazzed to do something, perhaps you would feel more at home in the company of the “toadies, time-servers, and hypocrites of the community” whom Corelli depicts as crawling “before a trumpery ‘title’ as abjectly as a beaten cur trails its body along in the dust under the whip of its master.” Dang, girl! Sing it. Nice use of “trumpery,” too.

    Woman opening bottle of wine while camping

    Cynthia has never committed trumpery in her life.

  • Jerry Seinfeld interviewed by David Remnick. A century or so after Corelli, top-tier funny guy Seinfeld dropped such interesting insights about work during this exchange that I listened to it all the way through twice. When Remnick asked him what made him think he could be a comedian, he said:
    .
     ………“The truth is, I really didn’t think that I could. And I didn’t really care whether I could or I couldn’t. I just got to this point where I was so in love with it that I just decided, ‘What’s the difference?’ It seemed much more important to me to do the thing you want to do than success or failure.
    .
    ……….“This is 1975, you know, and we were still [in] a little bit of the vapors of the ’60s, where you did what you believed in. It wasn’t a ‘success’ culture, it was more of a ‘soul’ culture, I think.”
    .
    Soul culture!! Who among my fellow Gen X’ers—we who are coming to terms with our vocational destinies while wading through a waist-deep culture-sea frothy with vocoded singing, native advertising, and a bank storefront in every formerly vacant lot—does not envy this description of someone’s adolescent zeitgeist?!

    Man with headphones and laptop in easy chair

    Drew’s productions might occasionally involve a vocoder, but they remain excellent.

    A bit later, Remnick asked Seinfeld how long it takes him to prepare an hour-long stand-up show. He replied:

     ………“That’s like asking God how much time goes into an oak tree. He says, ‘I don’t know. I do it every day, I do it all day. I don’t know, I plant the tree, it grows, eventually it’s an oak tree, who the hell cares? It’s all I can do. I don’t know.'”

I think all of us—freelancers or employees, plumbers or pundits—do well to meditate on work and our relationship with it from time to time. Whether it’s been hunting our food to eat, breaking rocks in the hot sun to appease the man, or selling insurance to yacht owners, people have always spent lots of our time working. Let’s do what we can to make it time well spent.

Woman standing in office Lichtenstein

Yours truly working hard—or hardly working?!—in arts administration circa 2006.

Pleasant surprise: My favorite interview gets the royal weirdo treatment!

One of the coolest things about freelancing (and about life on earth) is that you never know what’ll happen next. Sometimes, you can go through days or weeks without anything much unpredictable taking place. But sometimes, you walk out of an event at Carnegie Hall and go to get your bike and there’s a plastic cup of wine sitting on your bike seat.

Plastic cup of wine on a bike seat

True story.

Or sometimes, you wake up and there’s a nice email in your inbox that says, “Hi, April. I came across your Medium story and would love to republish it on our site pionic.org. What do you think?”

What did I think? I believe my exact thoughts were: “Cool!” followed by, “What is Pionic.org?”

If you’re a Luddite who lives under a rock (like me), you might not have heard of Pionic, either, but it turns out it’s a pretty cool website that posts stories with names like, “Can There Be a Theory of Everything?” and “Squirrels Have Long Memory For Problem Solving.” I’m glad to have joined their club.

The Secret Lives of Vinyl Hoarders pionic story headline

You can check out my favorite interview given new life on Pionic right here. (I mean it’s my favorite interview that I’ve done. Of the ones I haven’t done, this 1995 New York magazine article that features a vaguely interview-like conversation between Martha Stewart and David Letterman might be my favorite.)

Hey Brooklyn: Divest from filth, get help with your taxes, & eat free pizza*

Brooklyn is home to so many great institutions: BAM, the Wonder WheelChamps Diner.

I recently added a new favorite to my list: the Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union!

At the behest of Bushwick Daily, I attended a free workshop at Brooklyn Cooperative last month called Tax Tips for Freelancers. Not only did I soak up some sound tax advice, I also…

  • Met a bunch of cool fellow freelancers—among them a party planner, a bike messenger, and a soap maker (so fun)
  • Spoke at length with two of the credit union’s knowledgeable and righteous employees—one of whom also teaches self-defense and leads tours in Cuba!
  • Was offered some great-looking free pizza, which I only turned down because I had just eaten (but I’ll come prepared next time; oh yes I will)
Pizza and money gif

While I cannot argue with this sentiment, our event went a lot better than this

Just as importantly, I was also turned on to some crucial information about credit unions that I had sort of failed to internalize before, such as the fact that they’re nonprofit organizations. Credit unions are owned by members (not shareholders), so they don’t have a business’s usual mandate to make money—just a mission to offer fair and affordable financial services to their community. They also don’t invest members’ money in the stock market, earning their income instead by making fair rate loans and charging small fees for some types of accounts.

Sounds fresh, right?

A Brooklyn Cooperative employee (the self-defense person, actually) offered this nice call to action: “If you’re interested in divesting from banks that fund pipelines and contribute to the housing crisis, switching your checking and savings accounts to a credit union is a great choice.”

I’m on it, Brooklyn Cooperative! Thanks for the timely inspiration.

Read the whole fun-filled, fact-filled article on Bushwick Daily.

*While Brooklyn usually feels like the center of -slash only place in the universe to me, I understand there are credit unions all over the country. Woo hoo! Can’t say they all offer free pizza at their free workshops, though. If you find out, let me know.

In freelancing, as in hair metal, what goes around comes around (sometimes)

In the thrill-a-minute world of freelance writing (I am only half joking there), clients can come and go as unexpectedly as the Red Bull van that pulls up beside the park and starts handing out free energy drinks. (Or am I the only one who’s witnessed that?)

Red Bull energy drink giveaway

Have you seen me?

This unpredictable ebb and flow can of course be a source of consternation for freelancers, but on balance over the past two-plus years, I’ve found it to be mostly energizing—as well as a good way to practice living in the moment: it’s unwise to become attached to even one’s most cherished clients, as you never know when they might, I don’t know, move to Canada and change their whole business model, or decide that you’ve been so helpful that they now want to hire a full-time person to do what you’ve been doing for them freelance. (Both of those things did indeed happen to me this year.)

While I’ve learned to feel less disappointment when great clients depart, I still feel untempered enthusiasm when they arrive—or, in the cases below, when they re-arrive! (Shoutout to my James Joyce people: both of these clients rearrive[d] from North Armorica. If that means what I think it does, which is debatable.)

Here’s a hearty “hello again!” to:

Sarah Lawrence College

College student in a community garden

SLC student Tenn Joe Lim: “These gardens have taught me about the agency we all have within communal spaces.”

I’ve been working in different capacities with the terrific people at this singular institution since fall 2014 (and boy is my brain getting a workout). Last month, they brought me on as Assistant Editor of their terrific magazine, Sarah Lawrence. I’m super-psyched to keep writing stories for them (like this profile of a student who’s teaching kids in a local community garden), as well as learn more about the inner workings of such a venerable publication.

PLASTARC

Architects

Some of our best and brightest at the Center for Architecture in NYC

It’s plastic (in this case, denoting malleability)! It’s architecture! It’s BOTH!

I met this workplace design consultancy’s ingenious founder Melissa Marsh at the Wood at Work conference last year, and helped her with some one-off writing projects this year. Recently, she’s decided to step up her company’s editorial game and has been showing me the PLASTARC ropes: their monthly newsletter, thoughtful event summaries, and the many guest contributions they make to industry publications. One of my fun gigs this fall was reporting on a public program called, “I Love This Place! Social Research-Driven Design.”

I’m very happy to be embarking on a new year with these two terrific new-ish clients. While I might find the lyrics to some Ratt songs as obscure as lines from Ulysses, I think I know what they mean when they sing:

Round and round
With love we’ll find a way just give it time
Round and round
What comes around goes around
I’ll tell you why
Dig

Yeah?

A reluctant blogger finally gets into blogger-hood

If you know much at all about me, you know that I’ve never had a Facebook account or an Instagram account. I signed up for Twitter in 2009 so I could join Medium, but I’ve so far tweeted exactly once (to my local NPR morning show host so I could recommend he do a story about the awesome combination washing machine repair and rock collecting shop in my old neighborhood). I have been on Flickr for the past decade, and have somehow posted over 18,000 photos there in that time, but I have also accrued only 18 followers, which says something about how much I care to advertise it. The list goes on thusly.

Galah bird in Onkaparinga, Australia

One from the Flickr archives: 27-year-old me about to receive a finger bite from a gas station owner’s pet Galah bird in Onkaparinga, Australia. That’ll learn me to poke!

All of it to say that as long as blogs have been around (probably 20 years), people close and not so close to me alike have suggested that I start one. Of course I understood the idea (I’m a writer! we have the Internet! therefore, I should write on the internet!), but my reluctances ran several:

1) I’m not particularly techie, and wasn’t particularly interested in learning how to blog from the software standpoint.

2) While I have come to love writing in many genres and spend a lot of my days doing it, my most favorite writing pastimes involve composing personal work for specific audiences (journal entries that only I see, letters and emails for friends…). I didn’t want to feel like this supposedly-fun pursuit was actually work.

3) Conventional wisdom holds that the best blogs are somehow focused—on food, travel, relationships, the world’s largest collection of taxidermied frogs depicted in various everyday life situations*, etc. Since I like to write about all of those things, and many more!, how would I ever imbue my blog with a sense of focus, purpose, and cohesion?

Most of those reasons finally stopped stopping me in January of last year. At that time, I was a half-year in to my new full-time freelance writing life, for which I’d already gone through the learning pains of setting up an entire website (with a lot of help from friends like Claire here!), so the tech thing was no longer so intimidating. I found I was actually enjoying challenging myself to write in different genres, and slowly became more and more curious about how blog writing would compare to the other types I’d recently gotten practice with (including ghostwriting, post-translation polishing, and drafting static pages for websites). Plus I now had a natural focus for my blog: my life as a freelance writer! And since that in itself encompasses a lot of topics, I felt I could justify squishing them all into one blog with “freelancing” as the overarching umbrella.

Blog tags

A screenshot of my blog post tags. Too eclectic? Nah.

Since the start of 2015, I have come to enjoy these weekly diversions from writing blog posts for inspiring nonprofits and newsletters for unique conferences to reflect on the work I’ve recently done and life I’ve recently led.

As a (somehow unexpected) side benefit, I’ve also found myself crossing paths with some awesome fellow bloggers. Here are two I believe are worthy of sharing with you now: they also got roped into the Liebster Award madness recently, and both (to my amazement) took the time to post responses to the 11 funky questions I posed when I nominated them!

Have a look?

  • Nicholas Peart, aka The Slider, a British-born painter, musician, songwriter, poet, filmmaker, photographer, and traveler who wrote some stuff about his time in South Africa that I very much enjoyed.
  • Neil Scheinin, who goes by the handle Yeah, Another Blogger, a fellow self-described dabbler who writes thoughtfully about a range of fun topics, including pizza, beer, and rock music (mmm!).

In response to their responses, I will just say:

  1. Nicholas, one of my favorite popcorn toppings is a solution of garlic, olive oil, and crushed red pepper. Heat that up in a pan while the kernels are popping, then drizzle it over the bowl, sprinkle a bit of salt, and you’re golden!
  2. Neil, regarding the number of seconds by which you’ve been known to extend the three-second rule (“thousands and thousands”), I can only say: NICE WORK.

Thank you both for your camaraderie, and your good writing, in this big old Internet world. Knowing I’m in the company of such excellent dudes makes me a less reluctant blogger every day.

*Okay, Froggyland is a website, not a blog. But I’ve been dying to mention it, so I just shoehorned it in here. Apologies to the purists. (But aren’t you also speechless??)

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Voice on the Radio

Well, “love” might be too strong a word, but I didn’t mind it—and that’s an improvement!

If you’ve never heard me talk, I suppose you wouldn’t know that I have a fairly deep voice. Sometimes people who called our house when I was growing up thought I was my brother; I was the lone mezzo-alto in the school choir (I come by it honestly—my mom’s a tenor!); and I had an easier time singing R.E.M. in my college dorm shower than I did Tori Amos. Etc.

But out of all the things I was teased about as a kid—wearing thrift store clothes, riding to school on the back of a tandem bike, liking to read!—I was oddly spared any comments about my voice. Which was great! But that didn’t mean I myself was super cool with it.

man playing stand up bass

Did I mention I also played stand-up bass as a kid? (Though probably not as well as this guy.) How appropriate!

Still, I’ve always loved hearing other people’s voices: listening to the radio in particular has long been one of my favorite pastimes. I even aspired for a while to become an on-air DJ, a dream that only went so far as a year of interning at WERS while I was at Emerson College, and (maybe this counts?) a stint of reading books out loud for Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (which is apparently now called Learning Ally). But I’ve been a proud public radio member-nerd here in NYC for 10 years, and “become an awesome radio DJ” remains somewhere on my to-do list.

Part of the issue, I think, was that I didn’t super-like the sound of my voice when I heard it on tape. I realize most DJs are probably not required to go back and listen to their own recordings after doing a show, but the idea of too many people hearing my low-low tones was perhaps a bit off-putting. Until now!

Enter Ken Kinard, a creativity coach and chief creative officer at the marketing agency Accent Interactive. Ken and I met last spring, during a team-building program he directed for my client Pilot Projects. A few months ago, he told me he was planning to produce a podcast or two about the freelance lifestyle and asked if he might interview me for material. I thought it sounded like a hoot, and hey, maybe it was a chance to see if I’d outgrown my aural awkwardness?

The result of Ken’s and my interesting afternoon conversation at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Manhattan is a two-part ‘cast—also featuring freelancer Meaghan Ritchey of Curator Magazine—that explores the ins and outs of today’s freelance species: what drove us to this marginal existence? how do we manage our time? do we miss having coworkers? Or, the podcast intros themselves put it this way: “As more people are going independent, the way work gets done is changing. We explore how freelancers are living the lives of executives and the impact it has on vacation, family, security, and the community.”

Workwise podcast #10: Nice lance. You free?

Workwise podcast #11: Lancers for the win

Ken’s questions to Meaghan and me are interspersed with reflections from the studio as he and his cohost, Mike Boyes (a leadership development consultant, coach, and president of Credo Consulting), listen to our answers and relate our work experiences to others’. I think (and I’m not biased at all here) that they did a really nice job of asking good questions, representing me (and Meaghan, I would imagine) accurately, and drawing some really interesting insights and further provocations from our conversations.

Plus, I was able to listen to both episodes from stem to stern and not cringe once at the sound of my voice! (Although I notice I did talk pretty fast.) Thanks for whatever magic you wrought there, Ken. Now I’m this much closer to chasing my dream of becoming an awesome radio DJ.

The next time you’re working it in the gym, chopping carrots in the kitchen, or toiling with the toilet brush, perhaps you’ll want to take a listen to these fun shows and let me know what you think? I hope my bass vibrato isn’t too much for your earbuds.

That fresh “new client” smell

I’ve long been a fan of homesharing upstarts Airbnb. Since 2010, I’ve been renting my place out to fabulous people—packs of Mormon girls from Florida, film students from Korea, and gap year couples from Australia—whenever I go out of town for a spell. And for almost as long, I’ve booked my own one-of-a-kind getaways from Iceland to Budapest to upstate New York using the site. Win-win!

AirBnB host Oliver Aguilar at his home in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, IL. May 9, 2016. Photographer: Christopher Dilts / AirBnB

This is Oliver. More about him in a moment. (Photo credit: Christopher Dilts for Airbnb)

As a lifelong hippie, I immediately appreciated the business’s founding premises of extending hospitality to those we don’t yet know, and a waste not/want not approach to space and resources. And as a lifelong Frugal Fannie, I also immediately appreciated the extra income I got from renting.

So you have to imagine I was pretty stoked to start writing for Airbnb recently. They’re growing like crazy, and wanted an extra hand to help publicize the many events they throw and shout their hosts’ stories from the rooftops.

Writing my first few pieces for the site was super fun and brought me back to a basic truth about what I do: attending events, talking with people, and then summarizing the experience in words is one of my very favorite kinds of writing. It’s one of my very favorite things to do, period!

In the past couple of years, my freelance work has taken many directions: narrative writing like this, copywriting for websites, editing papers and reports… I’ve liked it all, but my work with Airbnb has helped illuminate for me that I want to prioritize this kind of people-and-place-based work most of all. It’s entertaining, it’s educational, it’s tactile. And it’s often the easiest type of work I do; the writing and editing usually flows the smoothest. That probably says something in itself.

So thanks, Airbnb, for this breath of fresh editorial air. And thanks to all my fellow hosts—like Oliver, Hans, and Seamus—for being so darn friendly, and so very photogenic!

Getting around, mentally and physically

Like Tupac and The Beach Boys, I get around—with my writing work, that is!

One of the things I love most about freelancing is the unexpected places it takes me, topically and geographically. Last year, I trundled to the Bronx to cover a conference all about wood; wrote about a Taiwanese modern dance company‘s rebound from a devastating loss; and spoke with grassroots leaders in L.A. who are making their streets happier places to walk, bike, and even play—and that was just the beginning!

Pete, Justin, Bikash

Justin (center) with post-earthquake rebuilding partners Pete (left) and Bikash, plus a friendly clothesline

This year, I’m happy to be starting off with a similarly far-flung (to me) gig: an interview with Justin Den Herder, a senior structural engineer at NYC’s Silman Associates, about his experience volunteering for the Pilot Projects initiative Co-Build Kathmandu. Our story ran in the latest volume of cross sections, the magazine of the Structural Engineers Association of New York.

Justin is a smart, fun guy with miles of great stories to tell about his trip. Here’s a sample nugget:

“We wound up purchasing and donating 75, 70-pound bags of rice to people in a small village in Nagarkot,” he said. “One of the most impressive illustrations of Nepalese resiliency I saw during my trip—among many—was the image of old women coming to claim their bag of rice. I’d ask who was there to carry it home for them, and they’d just smile, take the bag from me, throw it over their shoulders, and walk straight up the mountain! I can’t imagine my grandmother doing that. I was struggling trying to lift these bags myself.”

Peep the whole interview here, and let’s give it up for getting around!

Why I might stop calling myself a freelancer

As a wordie (hey, there are foodies, right? why not wordies?), I’m always interested in people’s different reactions to the same word, including my own.

For as long as I can remember, the word “freelancer” has had positive connotations for me. I associate it with independence, bohemia, diverse and interesting work. But when I read my friend and fellow wordie Suzan Bond‘s recent Fast Company article, I experienced something of a change of heart.

20830922855_2fb7fcb6ed_o

Identity! (aka: a windowsill I saw in Prague this summer)

I won’t summarize her story, since Suzan did a marvelous (and concise) job of laying her premise out, but will say I’m starting to think about different ways to introduce myself that wouldn’t be as apt to connote “beginner,” “student,” or “hack” to other people.

I could say…

  • “I provide editorial services to nonprofits and small businesses.” This is exactly true, but rather clunky and perhaps a bit stuffy for a conversational entrée.
  • “I’m a writer/editor.” And then when they ask What do you write?, I say the above.
  • “I’m in business for myself.” “I have my own business.” “I’m self-employed.” Etc. Then the above.

I’m sure something will stick in time. And if “freelancing” has taught me nothing else, it’s that all is fluid! But right now, my curiosity’s piqued.

Fellow self-employed friends: How do you introduce yourselves?