Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Fear Factor: Creativity Edition

I've been thinking a lot about the creative process right now, as I'm embarking on a new creative project. I'm not a stranger to the creative process, but, like giving birth or learning to ride a bicycle, I've forgotten how painful it is. Soul-crushingly, grit-in-your-eye, finger-trapped-in-a-door painful. Which makes me question why we do this to ourselves.

The source of the pain - for me anyways, I'll not assume my creative process is exactly like your creative process, though they're probably similar - is the fear of the unknown. It's not exactly like the fear of aliens - which actually does keep me up at night - but more specifically, it's the fear of not knowing.

We live in a culture that puts a high price on knowing things. Truth be told, that's how I make a living as a consultant. I'm very comfortable operating in my small sphere of expertise, and I enjoy my work very much. I get excited by projects, but I'm usually comfortable in my ability to bring what's needed to the work, and therefore, there's no fear. It's a nice, if stagnant and complacent, way to live.

Enter the creative project. That's all I'm calling it in my head and out loud to other people, because to be more specific about it - a novel - seems both pretentious and completely pedestrian. I know a million people (seems like it) who are all "working" on novels. I've been "working" on novels for nearly 15 years, and while I've got a few in my computer, they're all a) crap, b) unfinished, and c) did I mention crap?

So what makes this creative project different? For starters, I've given myself a deadline - actually, life, and my husband, have both presented me with a firm external deadline, and expectations for completion, neither of which I've had in the past. Secondly, I'm vastly expanding my pre-writing part of the process, which in the past consisted of vague-idea- to-story-start-to-getting-miserably-lost-in-the-middle, and this time involves figuring out just about every detail before I put pen to pixel.

Which brings me to the fear part of the equation. I'm launching myself outside of the definition of insanity for the first time, and am breaking my own patterns. Which (hopefully) will set me up for success. But that means embracing the fear. Fear because I'm operating in a space of not knowing. Which goes without saying is absolutely terrifying.

As an actor, I worked once with a wonderful director who would say, "It's ok to not know." And I would always respond with panic, because for me, it's never been ok to not know. I prided myself on knowing things. I was the kid who'd rip her own arm out of her shoulder socket to say to the teacher "Pick me! Pick me! I know the answer!"

But here, in my euphemistic 'creative project,' I don't know any of the answers. I don't know if it's good, I don't know if I can do it, and frankly, while I now finally have a plot outline I'm happy with, I don't know any of the words I'll use to tell this story. And that's freaking me the hell out.

But the fun of the creative process, I think, is in the finding it out. It's going from the unknowing to the knowing. It's the process of discovery that keeps me up at night - in the best possible way. While not knowing is uncomfortable, that sudden moment, or sometimes that slogging towards the known is what creates the euphoria, the miracle of birth.

And every time a new idea is born, it asks another question. Which creates a process in a series of concentric circles. Just when you think you've got it figured out, it throws another question your way. Which is both the agony and ecstasy of creativity.

Embracing the unknown is hard. And it takes support and discipline. Support because ultimately I suspect most creatives are afraid of failure on some level, and I think a lot of us blossom with approval. Discipline, because it's much more fun to watch Netflix/clean the toilet/get a root canal than it is to walk right up to the unknown door, knock on it, and let yourself in.

But isn't that ultimately what we need to be happy in our lives? That's why travel, adventure, getting married, sky-diving, parenting, and creating are all so satisfying. It's embracing fear and overcoming it. It's going from a place of not knowing anything, to knowing something new.

And that's a pretty great way to live life, I think.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Beauty Test

 I’m on the pier in Brighton. 1993. On summer holidays in England. I’m sixteen and I’ve been trapped in hotel rooms with my parents for the last three weeks. And we’re here in Brighton, and finally I’ve managed to escape my mother’s over-protection by begging for just “ten minutes to myself. Gahhh.” My mother, ever worried about the white slave trade, lets me walk by myself to the end of the pier, all the while, I’m sure, she’s vigilant for flashes of red hair and smothered screams and black gloved hands. Imaginations are genetic, and I got mine from her.
But I’m fine as I walk past buskers and artists and hawksters, and I reach a look out where I can watch the water and families on the rocky beach.
I’m buoyant because I’ve been cooped up with my parents for an interminable time and now I’m free, if only for ten minutes. And I’m pensive because I’m sixteen and feel like I’m not quite the person I ought to be. I have high expectations of myself, fueled by 90210 and John Waters movies. I need a boyfriend. I need to be wanted. I need to be beautiful and told that I am. Often.
And it’s with great irony I realize the song that’s underscoring my mood: that boppy, poppy song from the sixties, “You’re sixteen, you’re beautiful,” croons Johnny Burnette, “And you’re mine.” It’s the song that’s blasting over the loudspeakers, adding to the balloon animals and competing mimes on the pier to make the cloudy Brighton day feel like a carnival.
I smile to myself, feeling strangely connected through that song to the cosmos. Defined by it. Or rather it defines my place in the world at that exact moment. I am sixteen. I want to be beautiful. And I want someone to call me ‘theirs’. I want someone to be ‘mine’.
I’m sixteen. I know I’m not beautiful, but I secretly hope, long for the day, when I might be. There’s nothing wrong with my features exactly, and their arrangement is more or less ok. I spend hours gazing into the mirror, sucking in my cheeks to create a bone structure that isn’t there. I am perfecting my mirror face, the sucked-in cheeks, the pursed lips, the haughty brow-raise. It is the face I will be mocked for by my parents, my future friends and husband every time I put on lipstick in a mirror. But at sixteen, I study each feature with intensity, checking for flaws, crying over them when I find them, and secretly approving of certain details: my lips, my chin, my left eyebrow (but not my right).
I’m sixteen in the era of Cindy Crawford and Brooke Shields, Christie Brinkley and Julia Roberts. I grow up learning about the homogeneity of beauty. To be beautiful you must be enormously tall, blond or brunette with a great tan and perfect teeth. You must be leggy, and coltish and willowy, and all of the other words used to describe celebrities in the magazines I scour. Your eyes must be sparkling and dewy, your skin taught, your breasts perky, and your disposition sunny.
At sixteen, I’m none of these things. I’m barely five feet. I’m skinny. Not desirably thin. Just plain skinny. I have a weird high hip from scoliosis. My skin is whiter than white, my hair red, my eyes brown. I pretend that they’re hazel, because this sounds more interesting, but in reality, they are a dull, ordinary brown. I have terrible teeth with huge spaces between them, and just as my friends are starting to graduate from their braces, I will get mine in the fall when we return home from England.
But I secretly believe I might be beautiful somehow, someway, although no one has ever said anything to me about my looks to my face. My father says that I ‘look nice’ when I get dressed up, but he’s my dad and he’s supposed to say things like this. My mother is silent on the matter, except to tell me that my facial shape is oval, when I fear it might be round.
My friend Anna and I puzzle over which box to check when taking a Cosmo quiz. “Knockout”, “Attractive”, “Average”, “Homely”, “Dog-faced”. She looks at me appraisingly, as I do her, and we both generously settle on “Attractive”, and this is the most validation I get about my looks until I’m well past sixteen.
And at sixteen, I’m terrifyingly aware of the connection between being beautiful and being loved. It’s the beautiful girls at school who have boyfriends, the beautiful girls on 90210 who have excitement and romance, therefore, the absence of beauty and the absence of love are profoundly linked. Without one you can’t have the other. Ever.
And the absence of a boyfriend, right there on the pier, is proof that I’m not beautiful. Because I’m nobody’s “mine.” It is an ugly two-way logic that seems indubitably true to my sixteen-year-old brain. I stare out at the water, suddenly feeling quite depressed in my ten minutes of freedom.
I make a few decisions about life.
It’s important, I decide that day on the Brighton pier, that I be beautiful. My whole future life depends on it. The Johnny Burnette song is not just a pop ditty, reflecting the innocence of an earlier era. It is, for me on that pier, an equation of how the world is, how things work. You’re young, you’re beautiful, you’re loved. A+B=C. Heaven forbid if I should ever be old - like, thirty – and not beautiful. How could I ever be loved?
I realize now, twenty years later, I’ve continually tested this theory. With each new man, I’ve tentatively exposed my penchant for lumpy pajamas, frizzy hair and no make-up. It’s like a challenge. I say, “Can you take it?” when I show up in sweats. I’m not just being comfy and me, I’m testing them, seeing if they can handle it when I’m red-faced from crying or puffy-eyed and baggy from staying up too late. It is largely unconscious on my part, when now, at thirty-six, I’ve spent nearly 15 years being reasonably confident in my looks, validated by both men and women, and by general satisfaction when I look in the mirror. But still I test.
For I recognize the power in being a beautiful girl.

It’s hard to move past the lesson from that simple pop song.   

Friday, 30 May 2014

Not sure what I can add to the conversation, other than to say #YesThisWoman.

You know, if you asked me a few years ago if misogyny was a problem, I probably would have said no.

I would have said: I’m a modern woman, I take responsibility for my own life, I don’t play the victim, I haven’t been held back, I’m strong, I’m successful, blah, blah, blah. I would have said: men have it tough too. It’s hard to be a man these days. Where are the great male role models?

I would have said: it’s time for a men’s movement now. I see men in crisis. I see women stronger than ever, but the pendulum has shifted, and we’ve left men in our dust. It’s time to lift men up to where we are.

But I also ignored it when my boss, a man in his fifties, said “Nice ass,” to me in the hallway at work. And then called me in to his office and gave me a pretty scarf as a hush present. I ignored it when I had my ass grabbed on the subway. I ignored the hundreds of times I’ve had my body space invaded – on the street, in the bar, at a store, in an elevator, or the number of times I’ve been catcalled or hit on – on the street, in the bar, in an elevator, in my apartment building etc. Or the number of times I’ve flashed my wedding ring to say, “Already taken,” instead of “Not interested.”

Or the time when I ignored two drunk guys while walking to my car after dark. Sure, I reacted by kneeing one of them in the balls when he reached out to grab my boob, but I sure didn’t bother to call the cops or tell anyone other than my boyfriend once I made it safely to my car.

I also stayed silent for years after being coerced to perform unwanted sexual acts for fear of being “kicked out of the group.” And I tried not to be too hurt when I did speak up, and when I was kicked out. I tried to pretend that it was normal – and unfortunately, it was normal – to feel unloved and afraid that terrible things would happen if I didn’t smile and play along.

And I still try not to be too hurt when the primary perpetrator of this coercion is warmly embraced by even my closest friends. “He’s changed,” they tell me, as though that could erode my pain.

And I didn’t say a word when a man angrily shook his finger at me in a meeting last week and addressed me as “young lady.” (I’m 37).

I don’t make this list to suggest that (all) men are terrible people. Or that women are better than men. Or that my silence did anyone any favours. In fact, I'm ashamed that I stayed silent for so long. I make this list as part of the “#yesallwomen” movement. I make this list because I don’t have any close female friends who haven’t been affected by all of these kinds of things – or worse. And that’s a crisis. For all of us.

In light of recent events and the conversations they’ve spurred, I finally feel ready to not shut up any more. In the famous words of Howard Beale: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

I realize I’ve been a lousy feminist. It’s time for that to change.

Friday, 27 July 2012

How Can My Network Help Your Network? ... Or, on Curating the Good

Trust the network, the network shall provide.

This has been my mantra for the last 5 years of my life. It is the refrain I've sung in good times and bad. I have chanted it in deep distress, curled up in the fetal position on the couch. I have sung it from actual rooftops in joy - usually when a contract lands. I have passed it along as my only sage advice for the self-employed. I've based my business on the idea of social capital, and the belief that somewhere, somebody needs what I can offer, and that through the power of social media, we can connect. I help them, they help me. We all win.

And that win, for me, hopefully comes in the form of interesting work and a nice, fat cheque. That is the theory, anyway.

But it strikes me that this power of social capital can - and should - be used for more than just business-building. Social media is an amazing tool to rally the troops, circle the wagons - insert the crowd-building metaphor of your choice. It has famously been used to build camps (does "I am the 99 per cent" or "invisible children" ring a bell?), but that's not the same thing as being used for good.

The more we can use our own personal power - our human capital - to connect with others who have a need we can fulfill - our social capital - the better able we are to use social media to effect positive change.

That change does not have to be big, it does not need to turn into a global movement.  In fact, I think it's the small, human-sized actions that can have the most profound impact on any given person, at any given time.

I've been inspired lately by the actions of two wonderful women I'm proud to call my Facebook friends. My friend Jennifer was moved by a tweet about a single teenaged mom who had need of a crib. Forty-five minutes later, the crib her own baby daughter had just outgrown was packed up and delivered to the mom in need. Jen didn't stop there - she started a campaign in honor of her upcoming birthday called "Make Jen's Day" and she asked her friends to donate something to a charity, and to Facebook or Tweet her with the results. Within four days, she collected 115 acts of kindness - from donations to the food bank to cooking for a family with a seriously ill child. She received attention from the local media and the kindness count continues. If you want to contribute to "Make Jen's Day," be sure to tweet your good works to #makejensday.

It's a perfect example of social capital at work for good.

My friend Lisa is another excellent example. Just today she created a Facebook page called Project Help Out in support of her friend Ashley. Ashley is a young mom of four who, after recently giving birth, was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She is about to begin an aggressive round of chemo, and needs to close her day home - a significant means of income for her family. Lisa is organizing a meal drive to help out this family in urgent need. While her primary request is that people prepare a freezable meal for six, she is also coordinating any donations of money or resources people are willing to offer. She has mobilized her network that extends across North America, and her friends are coming up with creative ways to help this Edmonton family from as far away as Texas and Oregon. Links to some of the fundraising ideas are here and here. She is also asking for letters and cards to wish Ashley moral support at this time of crisis - if you'd like to do this, please send me a direct message on Twitter (@Marlissw) and I'll connect you with Lisa and Ashley.

These are just two ways social media and social capital can be used for good. I believe in the network, and I believe it can be used in a powerful way. My network has already proven itself as caring, compassionate and empathetic. I want to help, so do people I know. So how can I help you?

One way I can help is to use the power of my social capital to be your curator of good. If you have ideas to connect with individuals in your community for the purposes of good - I will sing it from the rooftops, actual and otherwise. If your ideas are designed to connect someone with a worthy need to a network that can help, send them my way.

Respond to this blog, message me on Facebook, tweet me @Marlissw. I'll do what I can to spread the good word.

I have trust in the network. So how can the network provide for good?

Friday, 20 July 2012

Having It All: The World According to Yahoo's Melissa Mayer

Much has already been written about Melissa Mayer's appointment as Yahoo CEO. Some commentators say her appointment in this position has taken women's progress in the tech sector to a new high. Others question the wisdom of putting a woman who is six months pregnant into the top job at a struggling company.

Indeed Yahoo's step is a bold one, as is Mayer's. While I would probably sell my firstborn for the cool $59 million Mayer is set to make, she is stepping into not only a pretty darn big job, but into the spotlight as the poster child of "the woman who has it all."

 Now, I don't even want to tackle the question of whether or not this decision is a wise choice - on her part or on the part of the struggling tech giant. Admittedly, I'm of two minds on the subject - on one hand, I think she's a significant role model out there for career women who want both family and a powerful job - a balance men have had for millennia. On the other hand, I worry about the wisdom of leaving a brand new baby, who ultimately, needs his mom. I also worry about the emotional life of a first-time mom who is not only trying to cope with sleep-deprivation and post-natal hormones, but the pressure of turning a company around.

 Not to mention the pressure of dealing with a rabid press, who, if she fails to make Yahoo the next Google in short order, will blame her family state - if only to smugly prove that "women can't have it all." The media is constantly looking for icons, and when they fail to live up to the pedestal they are put upon, few attacks are more vicious.

 Rather than get into the "should she, shouldn't she" debate, instead I think the fact that she's in this position is a fascinating statement. How far we've come since the Mad Men days, that a woman, especially one who is growing a new human, is considered strong and smart enough for a top job in an industry that is famously dominated by men. What a victory for women's equality, for the smashing of the glass ceiling. What a boon for Yahoo to be willing to consider a young woman, regardless of her gestational or gender or years-on-the-earth status, but based on her brilliance, her intelligence, her future-focus and her obvious merit in the role. It is particularly significant, given the American propensity for getting involved in public figures' bedrooms, to disregard her in-your-face fecundity. She is an inspiration to little girls who love math and science and technology and who dream of big careers.

 This is the good news to have come out of this announcement. But there is the bad news too. Mayer's willingness to take on this job while six months pregnant - announcing she will only take a brief maternity "leave" - (my holiday to Belize this fall will only be slightly shorter) sets a challenging precedent for other women who wish to be in her shoes. Is it really "having it all" if you can only be a full time mother (and brand new mother at that) for two weeks, before you're expected to be back on the job? Is it truly a victory for a woman to go from one of the most significant feminine experiences - giving birth - to being back in the office in the time of an average pay period? Is that really different from giving birth and being expected to be back working in the fields, as in the days of our ancestors? Have we really progressed that far?

 In truth, I think we have. I think it's significant that we're even having this conversation. But I do think Mayer's appointment, and her decision to truncate her maternity leave, sets a challenging precedent for other career women. I don't want to feel that, in order to succeed, I have to deny (or put on the shelf) the experience of being a mother, in order to succeed in the boardroom (as reality-fueled that may be). I want a mat leave - I cherish the idea of a mat leave, important time to bond with your new child, time to take on your new maternal identity. I can only imagine what's going on in the brains of other women who work at Yahoo - "Oh god. If I get pregnant, do I have to follow in Mayer's footprints in order to succeed at my job?"

|For me, at 35, I'm at that "do or die" place - have children now or forever hold my peace. I've been waiting for the right time - financial and relationship stability - and now that I have it, it still seems like the wrong time for my career. Now that I've built up the momentum for my career to take me to some interesting places, is now really the right time to pause for a baby?

 Mayer's example would suggest that you don't really need to pause. But I'm also of the belief that if you're going to have children, they are your responsibility to care for - not necessarily to throw into the waiting arms of a nanny, or grandparents or day care. While some kind of child care will always be an issue, I have no doubt, despite the willingness and nurturing ability of my spouse, I do want to be a primary influence in the life of my (yet-to-be) child.

 Which takes us back to that question. Can women really have it all? In Mayer's case, I guess we'll soon find out. In mine? I really have no idea.

Monday, 16 July 2012

An Open Letter to the Owners of Queue Clothing

This is the letter I have sent to the owners of Queue Clothing: 

Dear Mr. Devji,

My husband and I were in your store Queue this weekend, doing something we love to do - shop on Whyte Avenue. We love supporting local retailers, and the weather and Artwalk made for a great shopping day.

However something in your store struck a very powerful chord in both of us - your TITS display with the mannequin wearing a branded tee pushed up over her breasts with logoed pasties covering her non-existent nipples.

At first, I looked at it with a dismissive glance and walked away. I think my husband uttered the sarcastic words, "Classy."

But then I started to think about it more, and the more I did, the more I found it profoundly disturbing. So much so that I wrote this blog post about it. I am very concerned about the message it sends to your clientele, both men and women. As well as to the young men and women who work in your store.

I understand that sex sells. And I'm not against a little bit of cheekiness when it comes to arranging a display. But this display moves beyond cheeky into the realm of offensive and trashy. I expect more from a shop such as yours that sells high quality items. I also understand that the Sophia brand is named after your daughter. How do you feel, as a parent, showing off her brand (the logoed tee is a Sophia tee) on such a blatantly hyper-sexualized mannequin, one that calls to mind the sex industry? How does your daughter feel about her namesake brand being portrayed this way?

I went back to your store a second time to talk to your management about the display. The young woman I spoke with was lovely, and she admitted that she herself didn't love the display, but that it "was what the demographic wants."

I feel, that as the retailer, you are in a remarkably powerful position. You can choose how you wish to market your product, and ultimately how to brand yourself and your business. Both my husband and I know - we both work in marketing and are familiar with its power. You have the power to shape what your demographic wants. If you pander to the lowest common denominator (which is what you're presently doing), you're not only reinforcing the image of women as merely male-fantasy sex objects , you're also selling yourselves and your store very, very short.

With the power that you have as retailers, I believe you also have a responsibility to your demographic. You rely on them for sales, they look to you for image. If you present a sex-positive image in the form of female empowerment (one, which, by the way, does not involve stripper-inspired images) everyone wins. Your clients, both male and female, win because they're clothing themselves in a positive message. Your staff win because they're helping to perpetuate images of strength instead of weakness. And you win because you're supporting good - and making money, which are the two pillars of a community-based business such as yours. If you demand more (respect, integrity and, frankly, money - in that order) from your customers, you'll get it.

I have purchased items from your store in the past. I have browsed at your store in the past. I am professional and I have disposable income. I am exactly the kind of clientele you want. But without some change to your image, I will not set foot in your store again.

I am not alone. In just one day, my blog has received over 550 hits, and counting. I have received many messages of support over social media, and the message has been spread far and wide. Although I may be the only person to say something about this issue, I am not alone in being negatively affected by it. Everyone is negatively affected by images of disrespect. You need to know that people are influenced by these kinds of images - and the young men and women who think this kind of objectification is a joke, well, they are influenced most of all.

I urge you to reconsider this kind of imagery in your store.

If you would like to speak further about this issue, I'd be happy to have that conversation.


Marliss Weber

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Of Sex, Semiotics and Sales... Or Why I Want To Write An Angry Letter to a Merchandizer

A sight I saw today:

A display in the menswear section at Queue.
Note the charming name of the clothing line: TITS
A faceless mannequin, dressed in the shortest shorts, a tiny tee pulled above her breasts, her absent nipples clothed in logoed pasties.

Two questions: what was she selling? And where was she selling it?

I'll answer the easy question first. This mannequin was in an upscale, trendy shop just off of Whyte Avenue. She was also in the men's section of this store, cuddled up to messaged tees, hoodies and jeans.

So what was she selling? Not to get all second-wave feministy (not that there is anything wrong with that), but the semiotics are hard to ignore. "Lads, if you buy that t-shirt with an athletic logo, you're sure to attract a girl just like her!"

Which for the record is diminutive, featureless, and both hypersexualized (given her absence of clothing and the use of pasties) and defeminized (given her lack of nipples - which made the pasties irrelevant, but oddly more deliberate).

A point about nipples. While it is common practice to de-nipple-ize mannequins (to present them more as clothes hangers than as real women, and to take away the social taboo of the naked breast, should one be seen without a top), the fact that this mannequin needed to have her non-existent nipples covered both drew attention to this female erogenous zone, as well as the fact that she didn't actually possess this zone herself. The semiotics point to a sense of castration, of diminished feminine power, of objectification. What, in a different context, could be shown as a female symbol in control of her own femininity and sexuality instead was a female symbol clothed in the vernacular of the sex industry - in a department geared toward selling to men.

Which frankly, is an insult both to women and to the men they are aiming to persuade. If you sell to the lowest common denominator, isn't that what you're going to get?