In our telling of Becky Stern's Origin Story, we ended with her dropping out of grad school, moving back to New York, and getting a full-time gig at Make. That wasn't a snap-your-fingers proposition, of course; like her pre-Make video tutorials, it was something she toiled at over time—spurred by her own creative interests rather than a plan with concrete results—and it ended up being profitable for many besides herself (Make, for one). In our Q&A Stern fills us in on the details of that transition, then sounds off on workflow, the work/life balance, social creativity and artistic fulfillment.
Core77: When you say that you dropped out of grad school and "flipped into a full-time role" at Make, was it that easy?
Becky Stern: I had been incrementally increasing the amount of stuff that I did for Make over the two years I was in grad school—doing less grad school writing, more writing at Make and video stuff. It was a really nice overlap because I could interweave [school and Make], so if I did a [class] project that had a craft technique I was already working on a Make piece that used that technique. I've always liked to overlap projects that I want to do for myself and projects I want to do for work or school; I can always teach the audience how to do a technique while I am working on a project for myself.
My old boss at Make, Phil Torrone, was like "Hey Becky, do you want to write for Make?" and it progressed to "Hey Becky, do you want to write more for Make? ...Becky, do you want a full-time job at Make?" He really got me in.
And you're still doing that overlapping of projects?
It has to happen, in order to get all of the stuff done in the day that I have to do. I make silver jewelry, and in order to be able to stay in the mindset of silver jewelry—let's say I need to make a bunch to sell at a craft fair or online—I will do a tutorial video on a technique about making silver jewelry. And it works the other way around, too. There always has to be a personal angle, especially because I do tutorial videos, which are highly dependent on the personality as opposed to just a photo tutorial that just has steps of a project in it. I'm in the video so it has to be about me and my things.You and your things, made here, in your house. How does working from home shape your workflow?
Because I work from home, I basically live my job and I wouldn't want to have it any other way. I do what I love so it doesn't feel like work.
My schedule is all over the place. I will try to devote some time, usually on the weekends, to work on my own stuff really hard when I am not needed on other stuff; although I work from home, I talk a lot with my coworkers throughout the day, on e-mail and the phone.
Planet Stern [Photo by Nathan Rosenquist]
I find that those who work from home have to be self-starters.
Whenever I can get a moment to myself I am always starting a new craft project. If I'm ever like "I don't have anything to do" then it's like, "I could start a baby hat for my friend who is having a baby." That's always the first thing that comes to mind [during free time]—what can I make. I have a list in my notebook and every time I have a new idea, I write it in the list and when I'm bored I look at the list and pick out something to make.
How far down are you on the list?
It doesn't go in order.
Does your workday go in order? I'm guessing your schedule's pretty random.
Yeah, it depends. I usually get up at 7, start working at like 7:30 or 8. I really enjoy the quiet time [of the morning]. Most of my co-workers are on the west coast, the office is in California. So e-mail is pretty quiet between 9 and noon, and I can get a lot done without getting slammed with a lot of "to do" items back. So I do a lot of my web surfing, figuring out what is going on in the world during the morning when I don't have a lot of stuff coming at me.
And are you home for the entire day?
Usually I film one day a week for something or other, and sometimes I'll go over to another video maker's house and film her video, or I'll film my own video here, or help another guy somewhere else, or we'll go do a location shoot for our live show.
Generally, Monday through Friday I am sitting in front of the computer or filming. At the computer I'm writing or reading blog posts, sharing things on the site, gathering information for an upcoming show or video, or editing a video. On the weekends sometimes I run errands for work or work on my own projects.
So multitasking is a must.
I always have 16 things going on at once, and that's how I like it. If I'm making some jewelry—like right now I'm working on something that just came out of the tumbler—I'll be working on something else, then get these pieces into the tumbler, then go about some other tasks so that I can feel like something's happening while I'm doing this other thing.
Let's talk about what it takes to complete a particular project, aside from the pure "making" part.
A lot of thinking and a lot of talking to other people. I'll have a project idea for, like, the "TV-B-Gone" Jacket. It's a jacket that turns off TVs, it has a zipper switch, cool. But then it's like "Where is it in space? How is it interacting with people, what's the story?" And just talking to my coworkers who are very talented and into the DIY tutorial space [helps flesh out the questions and answers]. Like when we film the video, do we want to film it at a bar or a sports bar or a Best Buy? What's the best way to talk about this project?"
And on an internet crowded with tutorials, there's a sort of navigation you need to do as a producer, no?
As the video producer for Make, I talk with our other video makers about this a lot. Somebody will be working on a project and they'll be like, "Hey Becky, here is my outline, what can we do here." And a lot of times we will look at the community around such a discipline. So, if my coworker Matt is making a video about bottle cutting—turning glass beer bottles into drinking glasses—that is a very popular thing to show on the Internet, so we look at all of the things that everyone has done. We try to address community concerns where we say in the video, "There's lots of ways to do this, and we are going to show you one way; why don't you share your experience with us?" Which turns around what could have potentially have been a negative reaction, like "That's the wrong way to do that." So we try to spin it into a positive and try to make a community around the projects.
photo by Brian Redbeard
That's interesting, because this form of creation is so social. It's the opposite of the artist in the garrett, creating by himself in the dark.
Yeah, totally. It's completely social and public. For instance I know that I have a video skill set that a lot of people don't have. So if I see a really cool project by either a contributor to the site or a project that is from the magazine or something, I will make a video about it—asking first, of course. I'm like "Hey, that's really cool. Can I make a video about that technique?" And they're usually like "Yes please"—that's awesome, because they love our videos.
My inspiration is very embedded in the community, it's not out of nowhere. I think for Halloween I am going to do glowing Kryptonite candy, because I found out online, through someone's tutorial, that if you add B-12 to your candy it glows under UV.
Speaking of inspiration, what does your media intake consist of?
Lately I've been watching Internet TV, doing live TV show research for our live show. Because live Internet TV isn't really a thing that has a ton of precedents. I live on the Internet. I hate paper, so no print newspaper for me.
Talk about that, why do you hate paper?
I mean I don't hate it, I just think print publishing is not the future. Craft used to be in a print magazine and we did publish 10 issues, and then when the economy collapsed, instead of firing people we cut the print edition. We still do the online edition, and now all of our projects are published for free. Sure, some people at craft fairs and wherever I am tabling for Make and Craft will be like, "I miss Craft magazine, I liked to hold it in my hands" and I go, "I make videos."
So, why waste the paper and the fossil fuel to get the paper around when I can consume things online. I don't like staring at a screen all day, but maybe I should get a Kindle.
Yeah, I like things on the Internet. I'm also dyslexic, so while I like reading, it's not as easy for me as other people. I prefer the video medium or pictures. I like to look at photo tutorials of things, photos that tell a story together accompanied by short text.
Are there any sites you enjoy and recommend, aside from the Make stable?
The thing is, I browse the Internet professionally and have been since 2007, so I don't really browse the Internet for pleasure. I spend a lot of time on YouTube though watching tutorial videos, doing research. But I like the Instructables Featured Set because it is curated by the editors over there and is always full of people who are trying things for thing first time and documenting it, which I find really noble. To be like, "Hey, I don't really know how to do this, but here it goes."
The dream for a creative is to be able to do what you love so it doesn't feel like work, as you said.
As soon as something starts feeling like work to me, I start to evaluate why I am doing it, whether it's good that that feels like work, or what is going on there. There's a tipping point, right, where you don't feel creatively fulfilled anymore, and then you evaluate what's wrong and fix what's wrong. My role has been changing at work over the last couple of years, so when it gets like "I am doing too much of this one thing," then it's like, "Let's figure out how to fix that."
At grad school I started...okay, I guess you can publish this: In meetings with my adviser, I would have my notebook and I started making a little tally every time she made me want to cry. Then I would average it. And once it averaged over seven times per meeting I quit the program.
And that wasn't about the stuff I was doing feeling like work. It was about just not feeling good or feeling like I wasn't being appreciated. I'm very aware of my own need to be paid attention to or praised as a creative. When I first started making projects in college, there wasn't this huge audience for my work in my classroom. So I would make tutorials online, and then people online would start talking to me and I could have the kinds of discussion that I wanted to have.
And so I found that the Internet was where I got that creative fulfillment, and that just made me really gung-ho about documentation. Now I teach at Parsons and I am going to teach in the program that Allan [Chochinov] is running at SVA. It's all about project documentation: "It doesn't exist if you don't put it on the Internet." That's really important to me in terms of feeling good about my creative work. Not necessarily being recognized, but just finding the right people to talk about your work with online.
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As our interview draws to a close, my audio recorder is full and I'm a little in despair of how I'm going to whittle the contents down into something with a bloggable wordcount. I'll have to fit tens of thousands of words into an article or two.
With this on my mind, on the way out of Stern's place I ask her how she manages to cram all the things she's got to do in an ordinary workday. And then she reveals the third thing she makes, after objects and videos. "I don't know," she says. "I just make time."