Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Observations from the Niche-Free Zone

Back in the mid-‘90s, when the Internet was in its infancy, I got a call from someone representing the Barnard Alumnae Association. He was calling regarding a directory they were putting together. He was seeking information for my entry in said tome.

Yes, I said it: tome.

You see, this was to be an actual book with actual pages. Something alums would order so that they could access information regarding women, like themselves, who had experienced higher education at the venerable college that attracts tough, independent New York types and is affiliated with Columbia University.

After answering the man’s questions as to “what I do,” he said something that filled me with pride: “You don’t really fall into any category.”

My response? “And if I ever do, please shoot me.”

It will seem unrelated for me to suddenly bring up American Idol, but I’m kind of entitled, what with my no-category status. Besides, there actually is a reason to bring it up. I first should confess that, yes, I’m one of the hooked masses. I love American Idol for all kinds of reasons, and I’d detail them here, but a character in my second novel (not yet published) already has done so, and I really want you to hear it from her mouth. Regardless, something I’ve noticed this season is the judges’ desperately wanting to home in on a contestant’s niche. Is she country? Is he blues? Should she go the pop route?

Recently, Siobhan Magnus (the refreshingly quirky glass blower from Cape Cod who can somehow scream without being “pitchy”) defended herself against the judges’ comments as to “who she is.” I can’t quote her verbatim (and I’m too lazy in the moment to Google it), but essentially, she conveyed that she wasn’t interested in being pigeon-holed.

Good for Siobhan!

I get it that there are reasons to claim a niche. If you focus on one thing, you will likely devote all your energy to it, and you will therefore improve within it and have a better chance for success. Undoubtedly, had I claimed a niche by now, I wouldn’t be constantly wondering if I’ll make ends meet on a month-to-month basis.

But, if I were stuck in one place, I’d also not discover new places.

I love my nonprofit work, which I “happened into” back in 1987. I had grown tired of waitressing by then, and so I began temping. When an assignment landed me at the Ford Foundation, I gained a new perspective on “office world.” Who knew there were kind, altruistic people doing the nine-to-five grind? (I didn’t.) Now, after many nonprofit staff positions and loads of amazing, Kodak-moment experiences, I do fundraising and program development work on a consulting basis. My clients are awesome, and what they do for folks in Los Angeles is life-changing.

I love my fine art work, which began when I “happened into” a bead store. For almost 10 years now, I’ve been seduced by what I call the unbearable lightness of beading. I’ve made jewelry, mobiles, and wall hangings. And without beads, I’ve made original greeting cards using recycled materials. Most recently, I’ve opened a shop on etsy.com. This means I’m in the process of moving my independent website inventory to a more well-traveled location. Sure, I’m competing with about 50,000 other jewelry designers, but I love my work, and so I believe in it.

I love my creative writing. In fact, I love nothing more than making sentences. I am even happy with that one. And this one. And the next one.

So what “do I do?” the Alumnae Association wants to know.

I look for joy. And when I find it, I look for more.

Funny that these musings reference Barnard. I remember, when I first arrived there (me, a 17-year-old from rural Virginia), I was so struck by my classmates and what I heard during informal freshman orientation conversations. The most common answers to peer-posed questions were two-syllable hyphenates: pre-med; pre-law; pre-med; pre-law; pre-med; pre-law… I was shocked, but I never felt pressured. Even then, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from the mouths of babes. These 17- and 18-year olds had their whole lives figured out.

I hope it’s gone well for them. I hope they like their niches.

As for me, I’ll keep confusing the judges. And although I may scream at times, I’ll try never to sound pitchy (or… something that rhymes with that).

Please visit my etsy shop at www.KatieGatesDesigns.etsy.com . And tell your friends.

If you haven’t done so already, pick up a copy of my novel at Amazon. Just do a search for The Somebody Who. You’ll see it.

Know any nonprofits who need help with their fundraising? Send them my way.

I’m here.

I’m the one without a niche.

1 comment:

Martha said...

I love this, really love this. My memories of your first days at Barnard include inside jokes about portraits of historical figures on horses and the alternative uses for drapery material.