On Thanksgiving I was talking with my Aunt Michelle, an avid, self-published writer, when she said something about the work that took me by surprise: writing is her way to relax. Michelle hustles like nobody’s business, but she cheerfully told me and my mom that she sees writing as her hobby, an activity she turns to as a reprieve from everyday life. She was smiling as she said it. Writing, to my aunt, is absolute joy.
As for me? Well, I stood there listening to her while something like gruff shame flooded my body.Writing is her joy. Let me process that for a moment.
I have never, ever approached any kind of job with a sustained feeling of joy. Yes, there was the thrill of seeing my name on a masthead when I began working for a big national law book publisher. I loved taking the train into and from the city each day (though I do remember vowing that if I were still taking that same train twenty years from now something had gone very, very wrong). I really enjoyed teaching, too, but the whole truth is that every single morning I would sit on the edge of the bathtub with my head in my hands, overwhelmed and exhausted, thinking: If I can’t handle getting ready for this, how am I ever going to have kids? (“HAHAHA!” said Fate). Any task that was happy for me turned into absolute drudgery–even if was a job I’d desperately wanted.
Maybe this is what we’re just all taught: that earning a living is something you suffer through, rather than embrace. I have a pretty fierce work ethic when I’m under deadline and have to move, but sometimes I think it’s just because I like validation so much I’m a bit like a lab rat: if you promise me enough cheese I will run all the mazes you want. Hard work was something I did to get to the next promotion, or the next raise–or even to the job I had lined up for later in the day, after I’ve completed my work at the first job (hello, my 20s!). Work was all about meeting goals. Fun was what you did after the work was over.
But writing, in its truest sense, is the culmination of the work without the validation–which means that the joyous part of the journey should be, well, the work itself. Aunt Michelle recognizes it: the act of escaping for a bit, of creating a world of your very own, of embracing all those thoughts bubbling up in your brain like an overloaded washing machine until they become stories on paper. It is joy. And really, if most of us looked at our daily work through that kind of lens, there’d probably be a lot less head-holding-by-the-bathtub going on.
I look at Saoirse, who plays basketball in the driveway with Quinlan before her actual basketball practice in the evenings. I see David, who stays up way too late creating marketing materials for his job, because that’s where the fun is (though anything probably beats conference calls?). I, too, used to stay in my classroom well through the dinner hour because I was so into making my lesson plans. The joy was there. How lucky to be able to feel it–and how silly to ever allow oneself to lose it.
So. I took my notebook with me to bed last night (sounds sexy, doesn’t it? David is such a lucky man). I usually read for a bit before I go to sleep, but this time, I thought, you know? I’ll work on my own story. This morning, I got up early to do the same thing. And I wrote like Michelle does: for pleasure, for the meditation of it, for me.
(And then I passed out over my pages because regular life is still really, really hard.)
If you’re a physician, a full-time parent, a payroll clerk, do you find joy in your work? Or do you wake in the morning and put your head in your hands and say, “How can I do this all over again?”
If your answer is the latter, can you shift your view? How can–where you are, with the responsibilities you have right now–start to see the joy in the journey of it? It’s something I think about now as I raise my children: maybe it’s more important to teach them to value the pleasure of using their talents over the goal at the end of the road (this sounds a little reminiscent of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, doesn’t it?). Maybe the work itself is, in the end, is the whole point of our being here in the first place.
I don’t know. But it’s something to think about as I close my laptop, pick up my notebook, and curl up to write a bit more. Or maybe I won’t think about it at all: maybe I’ll be too occupied with just the writing.
I sure hope so.