In her podcast Design Matters, Debbie Millman interviews Laurie Anderson, the multimedia performance artist, musician, writer and filmmaker who is known for her inspired storytelling.
Early in the interview, Millman asks Anderson to talk about a childhood accident that resulted in a hospital stay of several months. Anderson is game to speak about the experience, but she is also clear that there’s another matter to discuss: the problem of getting stuck with a story.
“This [childhood episode] became ... my stock story,” Anderson says. “It started to represent me.” Throughout the interview, she alludes to the ways in which, over the course of our lives and our work, we build an identity and then we stick to it.
How do we portray ourselves? Whether we’re applying for a job, delivering a lecture, composing an elevator pitch or just introducing ourselves to a stranger at a dinner party, we are presenting an identity. Consciously or unconsciously, we develop a story about ourselves that, with time and repetition, comes to define us. If we forget to question it, it can become stale or even calcify. What if there’s a new story to tell?
Anderson’s observations have been on my mind lately. First, because I need to update my website. My current site is ancient, and I have a new body of work that should be included. Second, I need to find a new studio because the building it’s in will soon be demolished.
For my website, my first inclination was to revamp by adding on. After all, the old site has served me well, and the content is a sufficient documentation of my work history. I asked a young designer to help me migrate the old content to a platform like Squarespace or WordPress.com and then incorporate the new items.
But as we created folders, replicating the categories of the old website, my enthusiasm dipped. My colleague stopped and said, “Is this website about ‘Wendy Richmond’ or your new work?” In other words, did I want to replicate my story or create a new one? I surprised myself when I said, “New work!”
This opened up an unexpected opportunity. By concentrating on the new work, I’m able to shift my attention from a story that has been completed and solidified to one that is still being formed. My work has changed in medium and subject matter, and I’m eager to see it in a new context. If I use my website as a fluid and changeable entity, I can explore reactions to it. And then I can see how I, in turn, react.
Think about your own work. By reconsidering the way you tell your story, you’re also encouraging yourself to imagine the next chapter and, perhaps, begin its development. When you rethink your website or any other method of presenting your work, you’re taking the occasion to reexamine how you want to portray yourself.
I’m not saying we should leave out our resumes, awards and accomplishments or abandon our descriptions of previous experience. We worked hard for the accolades, and, more importantly, we have assembled a well-honed chronicle of our goals and passions. But do they all deserve equal billing? Should some parts recede and let the others gain attention?
Like making a new website, my task of finding a new studio has a lot to do with my identity. But in this case, it’s not the identity I present to the world—it’s the one I present to myself.
When I learned that I had to move out of my current studio, I immediately began looking for a space that matched its (perfect) profile: the right square footage, appropriately grungy, great people in the building and a nine-minute walk from my home.
My studio has also been a sanctuary. It’s the place where, for the past three years, I’ve created work that has specifically addressed difficult circumstances in my life. But now, it represents a previous chapter. I could not—and should not—replicate it. That part of my life has passed. It’s time to see what’s next.
The New York City–based nonprofit Creative Capital has a blog to help artists with issues like determining which website service to choose. It emphasizes ease of use, and its advice is like a metaphor: “The lower the barrier to ... updating, the more likely you are to use the site and benefit from actively communicating what you’re doing.”
As I work with my colleague on my new site, she listens to my protests—“Are there too many images? Should there be more categories? Can we add on to the text?”—and calmly says, “Don’t worry, you can change it.”
And then I realize that what I’m really hearing is, “Don’t worry, you can change.” ca
© 2018 W. Richmond