Smart People On Bad Days

I am a professional writer. As you can certainly appreciate, we writers suffer the necessity of time to the point where casual and even intimate relationships often take a back seat to those hours spent alone at the desk. Whether working on a story or attempting a project that we hope can be meaningful while bringing in some money, we struggle to measure the success of our work against those we ignore the most. At least that’s my take.

Which brings me to my question. At what point do we need to put down the pen and enjoy the company of others? Forget inspiration, I’m talking actual living here. When do words on the page take a backseat to real conversations with true friends in a restaurant, in a coffee shop, on a walk? More importantly, what are those faint whispers a lover gives just before dreaming? It’s been almost four years since I’ve taken the time to listen, and I feel so alone.

Dear Brian,

This letter broke my heart.

I certainly understand where you’re coming from. As creative professionals, we not only struggle to measure our success, but even to define success in a profession that is simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible: almost everyone thinks they could be a writer, and even those of us who are very good and work very hard are statistically unlikely to ever make a living at it.

Because of all this, and because in America the two most venerated characteristics are ambition and work ethic, the temptation as a creative professional is to feel guilty when doing anything other than working. Now, I don’t want to be too down on this idea. I once heard a quite famous and surprisingly lovely literary fiction writer describe her approach to writing as the “ass in chair method.” That is, she explained that the way to become a very good writer is to write. There are no shortcuts, she said. You just have to do the work.

Smart People On Bad DaysI think this is something that lots of creative professionals can be sympathetic toward; there is both truth and beauty in what she said. Too many people fetishize and make mystical the creative act. And let me tell any aspiring writers out there who might be reading right now: those of us who believe that we can only write when we’re inspired –the words flowing through us on a mission from, like, god– are destined to drink a lot of beer and play a lot of Super Smash Brothers in the middle of the day. Those of us who believe that we can only write with a certain pen, or at a certain time, or with music playing, or in silence, or in other very prescribed circumstances, essentially believe in the importance of inspiration, and will therefore have short-to-non-existent careers. Writing is like everything else. It takes skill, practice, humility and a whole lot of fucking sweat. It’s a lot like laying pipe, if plumbers had an inconceivable variety of shapes and sizes of pipe to choose from and also no health insurance, and the people who wanted running water wouldn’t tell the plumbers exactly what they desired but would only pay the plumbers on the off chance that their pipes conformed to the wildest dreams of the home owner, and then they were likely to only pay the plumber a hundred bucks for her months of work.

All of this is really to say: I know why you have no friends.

It doesn’t just happen to writers. Most people who have a career, profession or just an ambition have struggled with work/life balance. This is particularly acute in our generation, as the disastrous economy has forced/enabled more and more of us to become entrepreneurial. Articles keep sprouting up in newspapers touting the gumption of the unemployed and underemployed (estimated to be about a quarter of the American population, all told, with an unconscionable amount of us being young people). Our generation has been told that we’re part of a brand-new world in which we have more opportunities than ever before; want to be a writer? start a blog! want to eat cupcakes? start your own bakery! want to help disadvantaged young people in your area? create your own charity! The start-up-in-the-garage story is the modern myth we love most. Much attention has been given to the idea that it is empowering and exciting to circumvent traditional paths to success and do everything ourselves. Less has been said about the fact that this approach is exhausting and fundamentally unfair.

You have no friends because you are a worker, and workers in America have always been encouraged to think of jobs as more deserving of ambition, attention, and hard work than relationships.

This is compounded by our new drive to do everything ourselves, which is time consuming, and by the fact that in the age of connectedness we are only ever a click or a buzz away from our work email, our spreadsheets, and our bosses.

At the turn of the last century, workers got together to fight for basic rights. And they won. We have these brave, angry souls to thank for weekends, the eight-hour day, and the fact that almost no twelve-year-olds get their fingers cut off in silk factories in the US these days. Now, unions are under political attack, but they also face a more-insidious and less-media-friendly demise. Many of us no longer work in professions that have access to unionization. There are not really any collective bargaining opportunities for the self-employed, and it’s hard to demand, as workers, that we get our OSHA-mandated fifteen-minute breaks plus lunch every work day when the only time we see the boss is when we look in the mirror.

Hell, this isn’t just a problem of the self-employed. We live in a culture now where work is paramount and success has been conflated with the ability to conspicuously consume. This has caused an easy and sinister slide into an attitude of exchanging life for success. To demonstrate: I used to work in the service industry, where I worked too hard and was paid way too little. I also had no control over my schedule or how I accomplished tasks, but I got all my breaks and went home at the end of the day with my remaining time to myself. Then, I “moved up” to an office job, where I was paid more and did no physical labor. In exchange for a degree of autonomy it was understood by my boss and I that asking to take a legally-mandated fifteen-minute break would be ungrateful and career suicide. Then, I taught at a college, where I was in almost complete control over what I did from moment to moment, but I brought grading and planning home every night and essentially never stopped working. This is, I think, not an unusual trajectory for today’s young people. We have to work hard, and we like working hard, but every once in a while we remember that time put in trying to accomplish our professional goals is stolen from whatever personal aspirations we may have once had.

We’re all so busy pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps that we forget why the fuck we wanted boots in the first place.

So in answer to your question: it is my opinion that it is your personal and political responsibility to “put down the pen and enjoy the company of others” three times a work-day for a total of one hour, most evenings, and twice a week, all day. You should also give yourself a certain amount of vacation days each year. Start with a week of vacation this year, and, if you turn out to be a good employee, increase your vacation time each subsequent year by two days. Don’t forget to give yourself sick days and personal days. People fought and died for workers’ rights, and who are we to disrespect their memories?Smart People On Bad Days

If you work a traditional job, you have to remember that what you do for money doesn’t define you. You may work as a grocery clerk or an office assistant, but that is not who you are. If you are self-employed, you have to think of what you do as a job, and you have to be a good boss.

Give as much attention to the rest of your life as you do your career, and be as personally ambitious as you are professionally ambitious.

It’s important to make a go at having a career we are passionate about. But we should also be passionate about living. And life is more than success as defined by income or outside validation. Those “faint whispers a lover gives just before dreaming?” Those are the sounds of someone who values love and sex and friends and all those other things, the value of which cannot be calculated in terms of sales or blog hits or improvement in job title. Those are the sounds of someone with a life, telling you about it.

And readers, email with anything you want some advice about. No question is too big or too small. I look forward to turning your personal problem into an extended and barely-informed political rant.


Photos courtesy of Earls37a, tommie forbes, and realblades.



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