August 11, 2004

the chimneypiece


More thoughts on "How To Be Creative":

13. Never compare your inside with somebody else's outside.

The more you practice your craft, the less you confuse worldly rewards with spiritual rewards, and vice versa. Even if your path never makes any money or furthers your career, that's still worth a TON.
When I was 16 or 17 in Edinburgh I vaguely knew this guy who owned a shop called "Cinders", on St. Stephen's Street. It specialized in restoring antique fireplaces.

Cinders' modus operandi was very simple. Buy original Georgian and Victorian chimneypieces from old, dilapidated houses for 10 cents on the dollar, give them a loving but expedient makeover in the workshop, sell them at vast profit to yuppies.

Back then I was insatiably curious about how people made a living (I still am). So one-day, while sitting on his stoop I chatted with the fireplace guy about it.

He told me about the finer points of his trade- the hunting through old houses, the craftsmanship, the customer relations, and of course the profit.

The fellow seemed quite proud of his job. From how he described it he seemed to like his trade and be making a decent living. Scotland was going through a bit of a recession at the time; unemployment was high, money was tight; I guess for an ageing hippie things could've been a lot worse.

Very few kids ever said, "Gosh, when I grow up I'm going to be a fireplace guy!" It's not the most obvious trade in the world. I asked him about how he fell into it.

"I used to be an antiques dealer," he said. "People who spend a lot of money on antiques also seem to spend a lot of money restoring their houses. So I sort of got the whiff of opportunity just by talking to people in my antiques shop. Also, there are too many antique dealers in Edinburgh crowding the market, so I was looking for an easier way to make a living."

Like the best jobs in the world, it just kindasorta happened.

"Well, some of the fireplaces are real beauties," I said. "It must be hard parting with them."

"No it isn't," he said (and this is the part I remember most). "I mean, I like them, but because they take up so much room- they're so big and bulky- I'm relieved to be rid of them once they're sold. I just want them out of the shop ASAP and the cash in my pocket. Selling them is easy for me. Unlike antiques. I always loved antiques, so I was always falling in love with the inventory, I always wanted to hang on to my best stuff. I'd always subconsciously price them too high in order to keep them from leaving the shop."

Being young and idealistic, I told him I thought that was quite sad. Why choose to sell a "mere product" (i.e. chimneypieces) when instead you could make your living selling something you really care about (i.e. anitques)? Surely the latter would be a preferable way to work?

"The first rule of business," he said, chuckling at my na´vetÚ, "is never sell something you love. Otherwise, you may as well be selling your children."

15 years later I'm at a bar in New York. Some friend-of-a-friend is looking at my cartoons. He asks me if I publish. I tell him I don't. Tell him it's just a hobby. Tell him about my advertising job.

"Man, why the hell are you in advertising?" he says, pointing to my portfolio. "You should be doing this. Galleries and shit."

"Advertising's just chimneypieces," I say, speaking into my glass.

"What the fuck?"

"Never mind."

Posted by hugh macleod at August 11, 2004 9:55 AM | TrackBack

Just wanted to say thanx for all of the "How To Be Creative". I have just finished reading them and am amazed of the timing in me stumbling on to these truly inspiring thoughts. For months I have been caught up in trying to make peace between my "Crayon voice" and my "Cash voice". Now I can finally relax and let the juice flow free.
THANK YOU (and the Universe for leading me to your site)

Posted by: Rasmus Lasthein at August 11, 2004 10:42 AM

Yeah, it's truly wonderful no longer teaching fine English lit to undergraduates. Just pushing the furniture around as a lawyer covers the household expense, and gives me [not quite enough] leisure to read and write and draw.

Another hazard, especially among young women, is to become instantly emotionally attached to the dramatis personae in their workplaces, transposing an archetype of Family. Then when it's not reciprocal, Big Shock. It's Work not Love, Folks.

Posted by: bc at August 11, 2004 12:16 PM

bc, I think it's better to have "not quite enough time" than "too much time". But that's just me.

Time is used better when it's in short supply.


Posted by: hugh macleod at August 11, 2004 12:35 PM

I could say some nasty things about the above poster, but, alas, I will not. It is people like that that do not understand how creative people not only think, but operate, making us feel like we aren't on the track at the right speed as everyone else. You are on no one else's timeline but your own.

Posted by: nicole yates at August 11, 2004 5:47 PM

Being a geek and creating software allows me to have it both ways. I create stuff that I both get to keep and share (I will avoid going into a long soapbox moment about free software, etc).

The creativity stuff here has been great. I am getting the new group of hires to read it, and watching their reactions tells me a lot about their creative potential...

th3 m0nK
For some of us, its NOT old ideas in newspeak...

Posted by: m0nk at August 11, 2004 6:17 PM

lol, that's a touching story. Especially the end.

Posted by: kiriska at August 11, 2004 6:26 PM

mr. macleod is most certainly down with the funk.

Posted by: Brett Stuckel at August 11, 2004 6:34 PM

Maybe it's because my birthday is so close, or maybe it's that whole Zen thing (when the student is ready, the teacher will appear) but these writings on how to be creative are the second thing in less that 24 hours that has made me scream "Yes! That's it!" and I have to thank you for them.

And even if they are old ideas, sometimes the oldest ideas need to be reuttered so that we remember exactly what they were about instead of assuming we know.

Thanks, Hugh. Please keep writing and drawing.

I'm going to look for my crayons now.

Posted by: Woodstock at August 12, 2004 2:24 AM

Hate to be obnoxious twice in one day, but I just wanted you to know I'll be sending my writing teacher a link to this website. He'll love it.

Also...have you ever read _The War of Art_? Just curious.

Posted by: Gatsby at August 13, 2004 8:22 AM

Art & Commerce.

When they meet too intimately, one perverts the other.

Business is not personal; art too much so.

Not, "Alas," but, "Thank goodness!"

Balance is what balance does.

Posted by: Love Detective at August 14, 2004 2:31 PM

Nicole, the person you could've been "obnoxious" to, Cliffab, I deleted his post.

I have no time for sophomoric little nonentities who want to shit in my living room, especially when they don't offer to show any of their own work to back their salvos up.

Any fool can talk the talk.

Posted by: hugh at August 14, 2004 3:39 PM

I occationally have people tell me that I should be a professional photographer, and I have never been able to verbalize why I don't want to be. Now I know that the answer is "my photos are not chimneypieces." Thanks!

Posted by: jlb at August 17, 2004 6:10 PM