To do the work you love, you’ve got to unlock a few doors. UNLOCKED Stories are honest conversations with people who chose a path and made it happen.
A note from Ellen:
Maya and Amy are very special “grown-ups”—they’re the kinds of grown-ups who haven’t forgotten how to play, make things with their hands, and use their imaginations.
I loved interviewing both of them to learn more about their latest project, The Creativity Caravan, and how they navigate the challenges of being a married couple AND also business partners. Read on and enjoy…
What do you do?
[Amy and Maya]: We are the co-founders of The Creativity Caravan, a mobile arts business based in New Jersey. Our mission is to spark creativity in communities everywhere. We lead art and creative writing workshops here in NJ, and we travel with our vintage caravan all over the country. We recently completed a 10,000-mile trip through 24 states sharing our collection of miniature books made by artists from around the world, and teaching tiny book-making workshops in libraries, bookstores, art galleries, and community arts centers.
We are also a couple. We got married two years ago in two sweet ceremonies. The first took place in Vermont with Maya’s mother, a Justice of the Peace, and her violin-playing sister, and four cows as our witnesses. The second was at the end of our 30-day traveling literacy project, Type Rider II: The Tandem Poetry Tour, when about 50 of our close friends and family members descended on the Poetry Garden in Beloit, Wisconsin to witness us exchange vows and then promised to help support us throughout our journey. Each of these ceremonies were equally powerful moments in providing us with a foundational center of connection, collaboration, and community—guiding principles for us in both our private and professional lives.
What were you doing before you started The Creativity Caravan?
[Amy]: I have worn many hats. Public school teacher, managing editor at the book publisher, Simon & Schuster, bartender, freelance editor, and most importantly mother of two boys who are now nearly grown and ready to leave the nest and make their mark on the world. Evan turns 18 this week and Charlie is 15. They are my greatest teachers!
[Maya]: I have worn fewer hats than Amy in certain ways, but my work as a freelance writer for 15 years has offered a pretty wide variety in terms of experience, and has given me the flexibility to explore beyond my immediate landscape. Twice I’ve taken my love of writing on the road for some meaty projects involving bicycles and typewriters.
But I’ve also dipped into other loves—food, for example—by running a small catering business for a few years in San Francisco (I lived there for 16 years), and spearheading a French crèpe stand (Crèpe Diem) during a year-long stint in Western Massachusetts. I would say my life before Amy and our business together involved a lot of going-where-the-wind-takes-me. I did a lot of things by the seat of my pants, for better and for worse. There was a certain uncertainty about it all that I was quite enamored of, and I think probably prepared me well for the demands of a collaborative business, marriage, and step-parenting.
What is your favorite part about what you are doing now?
[Amy]: Building relationships. I’m definitely a people person. We have to have partners to be able to sustain this work. We have to find people who believe (nearly) as passionately as we do that creativity unlocks many doors and ask them to help us find others in the community who do the same. It’s the most painstaking piece of the job, and the most rewarding. I love that aha! moment when someone “gets us” and starts to think about where and with whom we would be a good fit. I mean, who doesn’t like to be seen and understood?
[Maya]: I love the incredible degree of experimentation we do with our work, and the flexibility we have in doing so. Our mission statement provides the essential structure and template—it serves as a kind of scaffolding—but the rest of it is open to wild interpretation, and that suits us well. It means we can change, adapt, retrofit, or otherwise reconfigure our offerings to make better sense for the communities we want to serve.
Also, I think “service” is a huge piece in our satisfaction metrics. The work has meaning because its value goes beyond our personal fulfillment. And that’s a tremendous and continuing reward in creating a collaborative business from scratch, this sense of meaningfulness and purpose that keeps expanding to include more people.
Least favorite part?
[Maya]: We do a lot of outreach with the community, finding allies and partners for workshops, projects, and events. The sheer volume of email communications and meetings and phone calls to get a single thing off the ground can get a bit overwhelming. The back-and-forth between ideation and execution. Sometimes, I just want to, you know, get whatever it is underway RIGHT NOW; I don’t want to spend three months trying to set up a meeting about it. Of course, I understand that partnering with others means that you are somewhat at the mercy of their schedules. So, to counterbalance that wait time, we do lots of things to fill the space that have more immediate rewards of completion. Doing our own writing and art, for example.
[Amy]: Taxes. Or just the mathematical/business end of things in general. My brain sees an equation and shuts down completely. I’d rather write 95,000 emails than do our taxes.
How do you begin your day?
[Maya]: We’ve discovered this new thing called Bulletproof Coffee. It’s regular coffee blended with a tablespoon of unsalted butter. We add a shake of cinnamon and it’s like a really good, smooth, rich latte. On a day that we don’t have anything scheduled in the morning, we kind of do our own thing for about an hour, and then one of us will pipe up and say, “Okay, let’s have a meeting.” We start a list of to-do’s, then we’ll go back and forth picking the things we’ll take care of. Of course, there are things that neither of us particularly wants to do—finish our health insurance application, for example, or call the car repair place to make an appointment for an estimate on the dented bumper—but we always say things like, “I’ll take one for the team” and it feels like you’re doing each other the good kind of favor, where you don’t resent doing it.
When you’re having a difficult or stressful day, how do you get through it?
[Amy]: Netflix and booze. Just kidding! We don’t have a perfect formula, but I’ll listen to music or make something with my hands, or take a walk. I’m also the type of person who likes to do something that is immediately gratifying like scrubbing a toilet or wiping the counters so at least I feel like I’m accomplishing something. This doesn’t necessarily help with the exhaustion, but it does boost my mental health to get a small task completely done. I probably need to come up with something better to give me a boost.
And it’s true, we do love a glass of Prosecco at the end of a particularly long day. If the weather is warm, we’ll sit on our front porch and toast to making it through another 24 hours. Then we’ll turn on Netflix and binge-watch the latest series.
[Maya]: I heartily agree with all of the above—except the scrubbing the toilet part. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that doing that does not in any way counteract a difficult, exhausting, or stressful day.
What are some of the most challenging aspects of your work?
[Maya]: The fact that our professional lives are entwined with our private lives makes for a pretty unique set of opportunities and challenges. It can hard to separate one from the other—our business is our life in many ways because we’ve both completely invested ourselves in its creation and success. And this can swing both ways in terms of feeling great or feeling stressful. It’s hard to take breaks, to go on vacation. But on the flip side, it is wildly invigorating and enriching to our relationship as a couple. We have so many points of intersection, conversation, interaction, understanding. For me, probably the biggest challenge is to individuate from that. To carve out space and time and energy to nourish my own friendships and spirit and passions and creativity, independent of Amy. To remain connected to my SELF.
The first couple of years of our business coincided with the first few years of our relationship—they were really one and the same. And it’s just been recently, the past year or so, when I realized that I wasn’t quite covering my own bases. Like I’d eaten enough food but I hadn’t had enough water. I found myself getting antsy, irritable, sad… all signs that something wasn’t quite getting met.
[Amy]: For me, the greatest challenge is balancing motherhood and a career, especially owning our own business. Unlike other jobs, you don’t get to leave your work at the office at 5pm in either situation. We work strange hours and carve out time for our own creativity in small spaces while caring for two teenage boys. It’s certainly easier at this stage than when they were younger. These days, they aren’t as physically demanding and, let’s be honest, teenagers prefer to be with their friends than with their parents. Also, my older son can drive now, so the day-to-day schedule is less taxing.
But it takes an incredible amount of energy and attention to parent children at any stage, and I definitely struggle sometimes with how to make it all work. I can get overwhelmed and my tendency is to get quiet and try to manage it all on my own. I’ve learned to share the burden better, to ask for what I need from Maya, and to ask the boys to take responsibility for things like their laundry or helping to prepare or clean up after meals. And they both have weekend jobs so they don’t bug us for pocket money all the time. I like to think these things will serve them well as adults, as will watching us build our business. I want them to know they can create the lives they want to live; it doesn’t have to look like everyone else’s.
Do you ever fantasize about having a totally different career? What would you do, in your fantasy-world?
[Amy]: Maya always teases me that what I really want is to be the lead singer in a band. I do adore live music and wish I played an instrument and could actually sing in the right key or harmonize! I suppose she’s right. I’d love to belt out tunes on a big stage backed by a full band that includes a stand up bass and an accordion. The idea of being on the road and traveling all over the world to sing on a different stage every few nights always seemed like a wonderful life. I guess now that we have traveled so much with our own work, I’ve realized it’s not nearly as glamorous as it looks, but I’d still love to be able to move people with my voice and some kick-ass lyrics.
[Maya]: I used to fantasize about being an Olympic athlete, but I suppose given the professional timeline of most Olympiads, I would have long retired by now. I honestly can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing, career-wise. Until 5 years ago, I had a solo business as a freelance writer, and during that time I also had a small catering business.
I loved the mix of these activities and the feeling of deep satisfaction whenever I completed a job. But I also went through bouts of feeling pretty lonely and isolated—there was no one, really, to talk about my work with—and I think if I’d just kept it up, I would have stopped enjoying that work and probably gotten burnt out. I’m happy our business together has involved some travel, and if anything, I just want to do that more. In my fantasy world, we spend 6 months on the road and 6 months at home. 6 months devoting our time to work with others, and 6 months devoted to creating our own art.
Who are your personal heroes and role models?
[Amy]: I love to meet or read about other couples who are in business together; the artist, Lisa Congdon and her partner, Clay Walsh, Natasha Case and Freya Estreller who own the ice cream manufacturer Coolhaus, our dear friends Jonatha Brooke and her husband Patrick Raines who founded Bad Dog Records, and our local friends Kadie Dempsey and Dan Fenelon who have just started a creative placemaking company called CORE. I’d love to sit in a room with all of these people and find out more about how they balance business and marriage. It helps to hear other people’s stories and to commiserate and recalibrate. Sometimes I just want to call another couple and say, “How do you do it??!”
[Maya]: I think less in terms of “heroes” and “role models” as I do “mentors” and “allies” and “peers” and “companions.” I often turn to these people when I have navigational questions about any number of topics—sustaining a creative practice, workshop ideas, work-life balance, marriage, and parenting. Having a conversation with someone that I love and respect helps me to see my own life more clearly.
I don’t try to emulate my life after anyone else’s. I think we all have a very singular life experience, made up of very personal moments and feelings and choices and mindsets and behaviors. Of course, I can get inspired by other people’s lives, but it’s important for me to keep relatively close to the bone of my own life.
What’s the next big goal that you’re tackling, or the next door that you need to unlock?
[Maya]: The first thing that comes to mind is true sustainability. Not just financial—though that’s a big part of it—but I would like to have greater ease in moving from thought to action. I feel like we spend an inordinate amount of time talking about doing rather than the doing itself.
So, I think what this means is establishing a firmer base of support and community so that we aren’t “efforting” as much to sell people on the work that we do. And I know that it’s happening—we are doing things incrementally in service of that goal—but it’s hard to exercise that kind of patience. I think the financial piece becomes more accentuated as a result. We get nervous when money doesn’t come in, and get agitated and start to feel frustrated by our limitations. I never want the focus to be on our bank accounts, but we can’t NOT look at those, so I don’t want to be blind to them either. For me, sustainability is ultimately about flow, about a kind of continuity of energy that circulates relatively evenly. I’d like to unlock that door soon.
[Amy]: I agree completely. Sometimes I wish the world worked on the barter system. We’ll teach you how to make tiny books and you’ll give us a chicken to roast for dinner. Or in exchange for a teeth cleaning and dental hygiene check up, we’ll facilitate a rocking party for your 9-year-old. The bigger jobs are coming, we’re working on the right relationships with partners, schools, and community leaders, but in the meantime we’re watching the money flow out of the accounts and sustaining ourselves on smaller workshops and kindness. We’ve used Kickstarter to access monies from friends and strangers who want to be a part of something we’ve created, which is incredibly gratifying. But It’s hard not to let fear grab top billing on the marquee. Despite the worry, I feel incredibly lucky to have a partner in all of this whom I can count on to calm my nerves when I am freaking out and vice versa. We have an agreement that we’ll panic on different days—and so far we’ve been able to maintain that schedule!
Last but not least: What’s your biggest piece of advice for anyone who wants to do amazing work in the world, stay motivated, and unlock major doors?
[Amy]: Take care of your whole self—your body and your mind. Take breaks. Get away once in awhile and unplug. Listen. Do things that don’t look like they have anything to do with your business just to see what happens. Play. Ground yourself—literally—by paying attention to the sound your feet make on the Earth. Maintain relationships with inspiring people. Ask for help. Be the sounding board for someone else. Make time to make things with your own two hands.
[Maya]: Stay connected to who YOU are. Try to minimize the distraction of what and how others are doing. Keep the thread of your spirit and soul’s purpose intact by following the heart of what moves you. Do frequent check-ins with yourself: “Is this what I really want?” and don’t be afraid if the answer is No. In fact, if it’s not a full-on Yes, then it’s a No. Be true to your needs, but also allow for the possibility—the inevitability—that change and growth are uncomfortable. Be diligent and realistic with your commitments; you cannot promise the world to everybody, but meet the deadlines you set or agree to. Be unfailingly honest with your limitations and create—and enforce—healthy boundaries. And make sure you love what you’re doing. If you don’t, something’s wrong.
how we are not alone
by Maya Stein
because a light on the other side of the street reveals
someone more insomniac than you.
because the camera made its way into the carry-on, not for the traveler, but those staying behind.
because the daisy, its boastful yellow, begged for a closer look.
because you found yourself being stared at by horses.
because the church bell rang precisely at noon, and all of the stores slid closed.
because someone else’s charcoal fire made your own mouth water.
because you are afraid of losing him in a crowd.
because of the mournful sound of train whistles.
because your father let you see him cry.
because a palm against a cheek steers the world into softer focus.
because the poplars insist on weathering the winter.
because of lighthouses.
because of shadows.
because of a shared memory of perfume.
because of the sound of feet on cobblestones.
because of window boxes.
because of the man spinning pizza dough like a circus act.
because the apple tree freed itself of dessert.
because you could hear the waterfall from a mile away.
because she understands your every look.
because the martini glasses came in fours.
because the cashier’s hand grazed your palm, despite the coins between you.
because even if the first words fail, the next ones won’t.
because the car in the next lane signaled left.
because of the stone wall you found in the woods.
because the dog returns at a single whistle.
because of the brilliant descent of leaves, and the pile that beckoned the neighbors.
because a handful of blackberries saved you the last miles home.
because the stars look as if they’re winking.
Three questions to think about, write about—or talk about with a friend.
1. Maya and Amy recently completed a 10,000-mile adventure through 24 states to share their collection of miniature books and teach book-making workshops in libraries, bookstores, art galleries, and community arts centers. Such a grand adventure!
Is there a “grand adventure” that you have always fantasized about doing? Where would you go? What would you do? Would it be directly related to your career or business, or purely a personal trip?
2. Maya and Amy love co-running a business in addition to being married and parenting together.
Do you think you’d enjoy starting a business with a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse? Why or why not? Or would you definitely prefer a “solo” operation?
3. Maya’s biggest piece of advice is: “Make sure you love what you’re doing. If you don’t, something’s wrong.”
Can you honestly say that you “love” your work? Are there parts of it that you love, and others that you don’t? What are some small (or big) changes that would make your work feel more fulfilling and exciting?
For more UNLOCKED interviews, click over here.
Know somebody that ought to be spotlighted? Write to me here.
See you next time for another inspiring conversation!