Eleanor C. Whitney is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and educator. Her book Grow: How to Take Your DIY Project and Passion to the Next Level and Quit Your Job was released this June by Microcosm Publishing (it is available for purchase on her website).
Pattern caught up with Ms. Whitney before tonight’s 6 p.m. stop on her book tour at Indy Reads [911 Massachusetts Avenue].
This book is kind of your own DIY project—How did you get involved with the DIY scene? What makes you see the world that way? Not everybody does.
I think it comes from making zines in the late 90s and trading them with people all over the country. And it sounds cliché now, but when I moved to Portland, Oregon after high school, I saw people not only self-publishing but also building a community around that. Whether that was touring with their bands, or having secret cafes at their houses, or doing shows in their basements, I feel like it was really concentrated in Portland in the early 2000s. I worked with a group of zine makers in Portland to start the Portland Zine Symposium, which was weekend-long gathering of people trading and selling zines and also holding workshops and discussions about DIY and self-publishing culture. That’s what really shaped my feelings about the power of this culture, to see people come together from all over the country and all over the world to celebrate DIY. And I think moving forward, as I started my professional career working with art museums, I remember an employer asked me, “Can you plan an event on a small budget?” I said, “Well, I put on a weekend-long zine symposium on no budget. It really showed me that you don’t have to sit around and wait for permission for something to happen. If you see a need in your community, and it seems like there is an audience for it, then you can make it happen.”
DIY seems to have invaded the zeitgeist lately—you can’t walk ten feet without running into someone selling something homemade. Where do you think this do-it-yourself impulse is coming from?
I think that we do see the rise of the handmade. Independent craft fairs are taking off. But things like state fairs and county fairs and church shows, where people are showcasing their homemade goods, have always been a big part of the culture. It was a big part of the culture I grew up in, so it doesn’t really surprise me when someone is selling homemade pickles or making pies or knitting pot holders. But I’d agree that now there is a hipper, slicker, more urban design element to it. I think there are a lot of reasons for this. With the internet, it’s easier for independent producers to open their products to a wider audience. You see websites like etsy making it easier for people to sell to a large audience, and template websites, and the Square app—all that gives people the means to push their product out there. But I also think with technology and mass production so prevalent in our lives, people want a genuine connection to things that somebody made. I think that’s because we spend so much time online, so much time at a desk job or a job that’s isolating us from making things, so much time in our cars, so much time in our own little bubble. People want to connect with products and other people and build a community. The technology makes that easier, but it’s also the thing that’s isolating us.
Your book’s subtitle reads: “How to Take Your Do It Yourself Project and Passion to the Next Level and Quit Your Job.” Why should we quit our jobs? What about the current job climate lends itself to a DIY career?
I think people should always be thinking about what makes them happy and what makes them feel rewarded, not just economically but emotionally and spiritually. I came of age professionally during the recession, and I went back to graduate school because I wanted to get a certain skill set that I didn’t have. What I thought was that getting that graduate degree would put me on a higher career path, and what I found is that’s not the case. And as I’ve been talking to people more and more, they’re agreeing that the safety net I thought a full-time job would give me isn’t there. I think sometimes we think that a full-time career path is the only way to go for economic security, but many people are finding that it is not. However, I think that [the DIY career] is more about having a flexible plan, finding a way to support many different parts of your life through your work. For some people, maybe it’s not about your job; it can be about having a creative venture that’s sustainable.
If you could boil a successful DIY business down into its crucial elements, what would you find?
It sounds simple, but you really can’t do without a budget. A budget isn’t just about money—it’s about resources, and knowing what you have and what you need and what you might need in the future. The projects I see that aren’t successful happen when people are not clear on how much money and resources they need to support what they want to do. Successful projects have a balance between their income and their expenses. That doesn’t mean that the entrepreneur hasn’t invested a lot into his or her business, but it’s important to have a plan on how that money is going to come back based on real numbers.
The other most important element is audience. You can’t sell anything if you don’t know who you’re selling to or what exactly you’re selling.
And the thing I’ve been obsessed with lately is calculated risk. When people are thinking about quitting their jobs or starting businesses there’s always a risk. You should take a risk with the most knowledge you can—about your field, about your audience, about your economic situation. You’re going to set yourself up better to take a risk; you’ll learn and grow whether or not that business is successful.