In 2012 I took part in the Yale Publishing Course, a one-week intensive classroom-based workshop for publishing professionals. I'm not sure how I found out about it, but when I mentioned it to the CEO of Abrams, the company I was working for, he encouraged me to attend. I was eager to try something different and liked the idea of spending a week at Yale meeting new people and hearing their perspectives on the state of the book publishing industry. Once I got there, I realized that the lecturers and attendees were much more focused on the business side of publishing than the creative side (which I should have expected given the program description, but somehow I didn't). Late one afternoon, when I was feeling especially lost amidst business talk, I was happily surprised when Nigel Holmes entered and gave a funny, passionate, interactive lecture about his career as a a graphic designer, art director, and illustrator. Holmes, internationally renowned for his ingenious work in information graphics (the art of distilling complex data and ideas into appealing, easy-to-understand visual forms), began and ended his presentation by showing us a simple wooden boat, which if my memory serves me correctly, he had made for his grandson. With that small handmade object he reminded us to never let the lure of technology or business overshadow our connection to our own hands. I departed the classroom quickly, walked straight to the bathroom, looked down at my hands, and started to cry.
Before going to sleep that evening, I wrote this email to Nigel:
I am taking the Yale Publishing Course and attended your lecture today. I am emailing to thank you. I actually had tears in my eyes when you finished. I have worked in publishing for over 20 years and, for the most part, have specialized in handcrafts. I have my own imprint at Abrams now and have always prided myself on the quality and beauty of the books we create. I'm a bit out of my element in this program because it is so focused on business, but that was part of my reason for taking it: I wanted to see publishing from a different perspective as I try to figure out how to navigate these challenging times. I have been asking myself many questions about the path I have taken thus far and the path I ought to take moving forward. After your lecture, I looked down at my hands and thought, perhaps the answer is right here.
Early the next morning I was happy to wake to a response:
What a nice message...thank you very much for taking the time to write (and at such a late hour!)
Like you, I feel a bit lost in conferences such as this one, and I know that I should really attend all the sessions as a participant (not as a nervous presenter, just waiting for the one before mine to end), but I have generally gone through life using intuition more than focused reasoning, and it seems to have supported me so far.
I very much like the feel of the books I can see on your site...you seem to be making beautiful books that encourage the kind of lifestyle that I was advocating last night: technology is a great tool, but it will never be a substitute for human work and ideas.
Keep looking at your hands.
Thank you again for writing.
All the best,
If you have read this blog before, then you may know that in May of last year I left my position at Abrams without a sure plan for what I would do next, feeling both scared and excited about entering the unknown. Looking back now, I think it was in the bathroom at Yale, after Nigel's lecture, that I began to truly understand that it was time for me to move on professionally. I was in tears because he had broken through the mental facade I had built to protect myself from facing the scary reality that I was in a job (in many ways a dream job) that would not suit me much longer.
I was reminded of my email exchange with Nigel this morning while preparing to write a blog post about about my new project, the one I hinted at here. I have just signed a contract with Artisan to write a book about the role of making by hand in our individual lives and our collective culture. It will involve about 18 months of research and writing and is tentatively scheduled to be published in the fall of 2018. My first book, Knitting in America, was published by Artisan in 1996. And, in some ways, this feels like a homecoming. I wrote a book 20 years ago, and that book opened up all sorts of opportunities for me and led me to my job at Abrams. And now I am returning home to the publisher that believed in me first, to a subject that is dear to me and always has been.
Thank you, Nigel. I am, indeed, looking at my hands.