IN ANOTHER LIFE, I remember one day asking a teacher in design school if the rumors were true that renowned interior designer Barbara Barry, Queen of Symmetry and Neutrals, had got her start by hiring a publicist rather than finish school back in the 80s?
Also: Did she really choose not to get married so she could focus exclusively on building her design empire?
“Why do you ask? Do you want to be the next Barbara Barry?”
In the world of interiors, that was like asking if I wanted to be the next Beyoncé.
Even then I realized that for me it was never the fame and fortune, but the security and freedom of making a name people sought out—the Holy Grail of introverts—rather than a name people had never heard and forgot the instant it was mentioned, which it wasn’t.
I loved designing homes, restaurants, cute boutiques and hotels, pretty little gewgaws—but there were still two more major studio classes all about corporate and institutional design. An unpaid internship at an office furniture dealer after the dot-com bust had left me despairing that my transition to working interior designer might mean designing “facilities.”
“Getting in the door is pretty much the entire game…”
- Fran Lebowitz
Could a publicist crack that door open, or should I soldier on through another 2-3 years of night classes financed on credit cards? And would love and family really be a liability? Because I happened to have a pretty fantastic boyfriend I really didn’t want to give up or neglect (24 happily married years later, I’m glad I chose love.)
It was around this time that I came up with an analogy of success I denoted thusly:
pond - Lake - OCEAN
I think I must have been designing some dinnerware for a product design course and was fascinated with Art Nouveau and Gaudi after a “Grand Tour” to London, Barcelona and Paris (more credit card madness.) Gaudi did love his peculiar, nature-inspired motifs—and died in quasi-obscurity to boot—so I felt he provided an inspirational blueprint of sorts for both art and life.
Or maybe it was a houseplant we got around the same time, when we bought our first condo: a gnarled bonsai in a fancy pot we decorated with mosses, lichen-covered stones, an oak gall, glass balls, an odd pod-like maraca with an iridescent beetle specimen hot-glued to it. We named it the “Alien Forest” and I liked to imagine we lived in a tiny cottage tucked beneath its canopy, on the rim of a secret pond bejeweled with chartreuse rushes, dragon-sized dragonflies, shimmering water lilies big as your head.
I would say to myself: This! This is what I want, the gewgaws, the pretty bits and bobs, the charm of it all, the exquisite delight of flea market finds and aesthetic enthusiasms—early 20th century British ceramics—Clarice Cliff—the Bloomsbury Group! (It was around this time we started a vintage Etsy shop, our own little pond on the web—gorgeous little things—alas, the sheer humdrummery of the U.S. Postal Service proved the undoing of our cottage enterprise.)
But the point was made, and it bears repeating, because the pond of craft—of little things, of daily TO DOs, junior wins, and gems of insight—has proven useful as I set sail in the paper boat of my writing. A pond protected is just my speed.
Even a Lake, a destination with some local renown and depth—an actual mark on a map rather than sheltered, parish retreat—seems almost too much to fathom as I navigate the inner waters required to string word after word after word. To the lake flows the pond, time-tested and strengthened by practice and mastery.
And the OCEAN? Super star success in any field is like winning the lottery. And no person becomes an ocean on their own—it takes the vast machinery of culture to provide the steady drip and rush to build a single person into an icon.
I’m reminded of Charlize Theron in the Dior commercial, looking every bit the golden goddess. She walks past holograms of Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe as though taking her place in the Hollywood pantheon.
Now, I loves me some Charlize, but she is no more a goddess than she is a monster. She is a human being. She is also what I denote an “OCEAN” of our culture.
Her A-list image, her status as an icon, has been built, brick by golden brick (or drip by golden drip), by directors, producers, fashion houses, reporters, photographers, ad agencies, makeup artists, lighting designers, agents, publicists, other actors, magazines, FANS—i.e., priests and worshippers—beneficiaries and consumers of the products of deification, an ancient cultural pursuit.
Charlize has won the lottery of oceanic fame, and good for her—she would be the first to tell you it’s not all ambrosia and marbled mansions. To me, it all sounds exhausting.
In the sense that religion and royalty have been historically entwined institutions supporting the multitudes teeming before the altar and the throne, so now does Hollywood represent a new powerhouse of economic vitality—a deep, oceanic well—arrayed around which myriad other vessels big and small receive the slop and spill of the star-making apparatus.
People have never been “in the image” of God; gods are an image of us, gilded.
It seems to me, in fact, the very wish to be the Icon, to be that vast, deepest reserve of precious mana, is a wish to be immune from the forces of nature by becoming one; even the process of creating such a figure is a symbolic appeal to the same wish—heaping gravitas and swag like so many sacrifices upon a single entity in hopes of creating some supernatural store as all other elements betray us: when shallower vessels run dry, the deepest well may remain fruitful.
It would take sixteen years after I abandoned design school, two more career changes, and a move across the pond to find my own little puddle—to soak myself in story craft, write a novel, start a Substack. But this is not a How To—I was never able to manage writing a novel while I was working full-time.
If my pond-Lake-OCEAN analogy makes any sense to you at all, I hope you too might carve out a verdant little spot; it need not necessarily grow unaccountably full to overflowing, running on inexorably into (sometimes) treacherous depths.
It can remain just yours.
My husband shares your love of the "pond". He writes (beautifully), enjoys his workshop (carpentry), tinkers with his guitar. He loves when people read his stories, a handful of people. I have an obsessive nature and I aim for the "lake." As an incurable workaholic I also know that the more I do, the more I can do... when your graal is writing, these are dangerous waters, anxiety lurks. But it's OK, I do it for myself, first of all, my personal pond.
I love your little puddle of creativity. I'm joking about the puddle part. It's a gorgeous pond!