Do What You Love - Even When You Don't Love What You Do

Our visions for what constitutes ‘work’ may not be the same, but I’ll bet the visions are similar enough.

Taking a stab: You wish to spend your days laboring under the thrall of your passions. The afterglow of ‘good work’ transmuting your romantic relationships, your familial connections, and bestowing upon you infinite amounts of patience and compassion and good will so that your life becomes not just one trial after another but a beautiful existence suffused with meaning and purpose.

That we should be paid well for our work goes unmentioned but is assumed.

As we’ve all constructed our unique but similar visions of how we want our work to manifest itself in our lives, one of the more popular mantras we pick up along the way is this:

Do what you love, love what you do.

As if this equation is entirely up to us. As if life (or fate, if you swing that way) doesn’t have other plans for us. As if issues of class, race, education, circumstance don’t impact our choices, our options. As if reality can or should be ignored.

Miya Tokumitsu has an excellent piece in Slate where she details the dangers that the do what you love, love what you do mantra presents not only for us as individuals, but to the collective. Many of us conflate our jobs with our passions. We want to spend our time doing what we love, not doing what we need to do just to survive. And yet, many more of us work ‘just so I can survive’ jobs than we do laboring on our passion projects.

That's reality.

Writing is my passion, and when I completed graduate school in the mid-1990s, I had wanted to live as a writer. My rough plan was to work a job that paid me enough, provided health benefits and some retirement, while I completed my first novel – which I calculated would take two to three years. Once the novel was of course published, and I was not quite but close to being a best-selling author, I would slide out of my side-line gig and write full time.

My plan failed.

Writing my first novel took much longer than anticipated (and the pressure to complete it on my time-line instead of its time-line didn’t help). My ability to secure a stable income proved much more challenging than expected. Throw in a divorce, a new relationship and marriage, the addition of two children, a more time-consuming job, and the years just accumulate. I eventually had to abandon the first novel and liberate myself by writing a second. As many of my fellow writers know, admitting that a work isn’t gelling after months or years of effort is difficult. You failed. You failed the work, and you failed yourself. That’s a lot of shame to shoulder - the death of the lifestyle dream AND the death of the artistic dream.

And yet. Here we are. Life, as that other mantra states, goes on. Passions don’t let up, they don’t release us, and even when our visions of the perfect work and the ideal lifestyle get flushed, we have to acknowledge the reality that we are still here, still breathing, still fighting. Do what you love, love what you do works for a few. For the rest of us, it’s do what you love because you fucking have to. You’re not going to get paid what you should, you’re not going to get the acknowledgement that you deserve, and the effort required to live your passions will prove much more difficult than you could have ever expected. It won’t be easy.

But we both know that you’re going to do it, anyway.

Be Kind, Rewind

On this blog I have so far hit the 'begin again' concept from various, but mostly artistic, angles. When it comes to the craft of writing, the Camus quote that serves as the site's thematic through-line means that as much as we want and need for our works to be read right now, writers should slow down enough to make their art as close to complete, as whole, as they can. Writers owe their own fiction this devotion, and they owe the reader this dedication as well.

There is another side to this 'begin again' nonsense that I haven't written as much about. The essential other side of the creative process - the spiritual practice of art. 

I understand that 'spiritual' is a weighted term, fraught with implications that could skew positive or negative (probably negative) for most everyone. I understand those of you who prefer the rational, the humanistic, the agnostic or the Godless. And I understand the discomfort of having someone proselytize. Hear me out. What I intend by using the word 'spiritual' and why I anchor my artistic process with it is better defined by forming it as a question: how do I conduct myself in this world? And how does my interaction with this world in turn feed my art? 

Let me get to the punchline: I often conduct myself poorly. I don't pay enough attention to...well, most anything. There are many times I regret not stopping myself and acknowledging my wife, my kids, my friends, because although they mean everything to me, I rarely stop and let them know that or act as if I know that (I do).

I'm preoccupied. I'm busy. You know how it is. 

More damning, though, than a lack of attentiveness, worse than not being present, is the loss of empathy that leeches from us as we narrow the frame of our own existences and lose the wide-view. When we stop understanding other humans, we stop being human ourselves. As a writer this openness, this vulnerability, to both people and experience is the only way I can create characters that are real to me and (I hope) to the reader. I have to put myself into the heads of people I don't get and find my way to some shared humanity, some empathy, some compassion, even. This isn't easy to do when your character is an unrepentant asshole, (or if I am acting like an unrepentant asshole, which does occur on occasion) but that's the uncomfortable work of the artist: to dive the deep waters as often as you skim the shallows.

Being preoccupied, not being vulnerable and empathetic, this all makes for bad art, but worse, this all makes for one rotten human being. A spiritual practice should, at its root, be about your lifestyle, your behavior, how you live and how you interact with your fellow humans. That is the point of even laying claim to a term like 'spiritual' - yeah, your faith or your practice might initially be about some holy being from this or that tradition but in the day-to-day grind where experiences are alternatively joyful, painful, boring, irritating, sultry, stupid - that high-minded abstract spiritual stuff needs to yield real-world behaviors and actions or it's useless. 

We have all done questionable and hurtful things to other people but the redemption--if there is such a thing--is that we can stop. Start over. Begin again. 

As in art, so in life. As in life, so in art. 

Below I've linked to a commencement address that the (great) fiction writer George Saunders delivered this year on the importance of kindness. It's a delight.


Influences - Stephen King

I can't begin a list of writers who have influenced me without starting with Stephen King. 

When I was a creative writing student in college (way back in the early 1990s), it wasn't hip (or 'hep' as my former percussion instructor used to say) to throw Stephen King out as an influence. Creative writing classes of that era were still dominated by the structures established in the 1970s, the writing programs designed by the likes of John Gardner, who pushed publication in small, literary magazines and tried to get everyone who could do so to attend THE Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. (To be fair to Univ of Iowa, a couple of my favorite writers--Mark Helprin and TC Boyle--did time there.) 

If you weren't trying to be the next Raymond Carver, you were shit. This is a shame, because I don't think even Raymond Carver wanted to be Raymond Carver after awhile. 

Anyway, even in the 1990s the MFA to teaching to (maybe) publishing route was unable to support the many, many writers (like myself) who couldn't get into or couldn't fit into MFA programs. Those of us who grew up on comic books, Piers Anthony and Stephen King novels, old reruns of The Twilight Zone, and whatever other miasma of pop culture/literary influences that penetrated our brains were sort of forced to suck it. (Michael Chabon being the one clear example of a writer with similar influences to mine and who transcended painful obscurity by staying true to his influences. Hats off to you, Mr. Chabon.) 

But yeah, you didn't mention that you loved Stephen King back in my day. You just didn't. 

If I had to point to two things (because I can't narrow it down to one) that set King apart, and two things that demand respect, it's his authorial voice and his evocation of all things Americana. Even in his worst novels (let's say Tommyknockers), his voice is so alluring, so compelling, so much like our own inner dialogue, that you can't help but follow him wherever he takes you. And does anyone summon 'kitchen sink' realism better than Mr. King? He gets America. He gets us. He gives you a world just like the one we live in, and then he either scares the shit out of us, or he transports us, or he performs some wonderful combination of both.  

I find the epics--The Stand, IT--the most compelling. But the argument could be made that the greater novels are the more focused pot-boilers like Firestarter or The Dead Zone. I dig his horror works, but I find his paranormal-influenced tales just as winning, if not more so. I have barely read The Dark Tower series, and I can't wait to finally dig in.

Beyond the deep debt I have to him and his fiction, I found his On Writing to be the perfect impetus--the right book read at the right time--to get me to complete my own fiction works and get them out into the world. His process of always moving on to the next project is what I needed to emulate in order to get over my own obsessive revision cycle. (It wasn't David Milch obsessive, but it was close.) Funny that I had to end where I began in order to get my own writing career going again. Life just never ceases to mystify.

By the by, I have read that other authors--notably Karen Russell--have recently begun to publicly thank the man for his influence on their own writing. I'm happy to see the man get his due. Thanks Stephen King for showing us the way.