The Work Itself Has to Be the Reward

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

-Albert Camus

This is one I wrestle with a lot. I want a career so bad I can taste it. I want to spend all my working time writing and get paid enough to keep doing it. I want people to read my work and be moved by it. I want the years and the effort I’ve put into my writing to pay off. I daydream about it constantly, smiling to myself at how I imagine it’s going to be.

It’s going to be awesome. I’m going to quit bartending, and travel, spend more time in the shop making things, and being a writer is going to pay for all of it. Yeah.

The problem is that I’m supposed to be using that imagination for my work, and no matter how bounteous it must still be a finite resource. Time certainly is, and the time I spend imagining being a successful writer is time I am not spending imagining new worlds and different people and the things that happen when those things are made to collide.

The other problem is the little jolt of neurochemical satisfaction I get from the fantasy. Sure, it’s just a shadow of the satisfaction you get from actually accomplishing something, but it’s free. You don’t actually have to do any work, just imagine that you have done (I spent most of my twenties doing this, imagining being a writer instead of actually writing, much). Do it too much, and you end up never actually doing any work, because actually writing is hard at the best of times and gut-wrenchingly, soul-clenchingly painful at the worst. Don’t even get me started on revising. And that’s before you ever show it to anybody.

Take a step back and look at it, and the whole damn thing’s a slog with no real end in sight and a spoonful of heartbreak with each uphill step. Even if you get to the top there’s no guarantee anybody’s going to want to publish or even read this thing you made, and even if they do it’s likely never going to pay your bills entire, necessitating some other line of work to fill out your expenses. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you why anybody would want to go through all that, and that’s speaking as someone who’s spent the better part of his adult life doing it.

And there’s plenty further to go. Further enough, at any rate, that the end exists only in my imagination, which makes it even nicer than it’ll likely actually be.

But I am happiest when I don’t even think about it, when the work itself is my reward. When my focus is less dilute, my ambition banked. When I think about my writing practice and not my (thus far largely non-existent) writing career. I might someday have those problems. From where I sit now they look like they might be okay problems to have. But they’re not the problems I have now. Right now (and always) I need to be writing, and content with that.

Best to align what rewards me with the things that are in my power, is what I’m trying to say. It makes life a lot happier when you can.

Like Ralph Waldo Emerson said, the reward of a thing well done is having done it.  Look at it that way, and the hard work always pays off.

How’s the Writing Going?

I get this question a lot, and it’s a hard one to answer.  Usually I go with something innocuous, like “It’s going alright” or “It’s kicking my arse” or “I hate it with the passion of a million white-hot suns.”  Sometimes, if circumstance permits, I might go into a bit more detail, but I have to stop myself from opening the can up too wide, because I could literally talk for hours and most people don’t have time to hear, much less digest, the full report.  I’ll give you an example.

There’s a story I wrote last summer, about woodworking and a zombie apocalypse, among other things.  Call it Story X.  I worked on it for a few months, did some research, got it banged into what I thought was a pretty good shape, and went ahead and submitted it a couple of times, receiving (relatively) quick rejections.  I knew the beginning, vivid and prettily-worded though it was, wasn’t accomplishing enough, so I went over it again, basically rewriting what I’d written before in a way I hoped would be more compelling.  As I learned when I submitted it to my writers’ group (which is what I should have done in the first place), I was not particularly successful, and every one of my estimable colleagues saw through my prosaic hand-waving and called me out on it (for which I thank them).  At the time I’d started in on a novel, so I set Story X aside and tried not to think much about it.  A month or two later I took a hiatus from writing altogether, and have been slowly easing myself back into it for the last month or so.  Since I’m not quite ready to get back into novel mode I decided to bang my head against Story X for awhile and see which cracked first.

So far I’m slightly ahead.

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