I am often thinking about the ways that marketing and branding and the hustle of selling your identity deforms our social interactions (and our identites), which came into focus when reading an essay, “How to Do What You Love” by Paul Graham, which I found via Brain Pickings, which I found via Readlists which I found thanks to Josh Hadro at Library Journal. Which is probably more than you want to know.
Anyway, here’s what I liked:
Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.
That’s what leads people to try to write novels, for example. They like reading novels. They notice that people who write them win Nobel prizes. What could be more wonderful, they think, than to be a novelist? But liking the idea of being a novelist is not enough; you have to like the actual work of novel-writing if you’re going to be good at it; you have to like making up elaborate lies.
Prestige is just fossilized inspiration.
After more discussion of what leads people astray – including money, which is particularly problematic when it gets combined with prestige, he adds this:
The test of whether people love what they do is whether they’d do it even if they weren’t paid for it.
I know a lot of writers who say “I can’t not write!” Some of them get up super-early to give themselves time to immerse themselves in this thing they love, or have an itch to get something on paper in the middle of the night and get up and do it. People who tend to stare into the distance a lot because they’re with their characters.
Graham points out that this doesn’t mean loving every minute of the work, because there are times when it’s just a slog, but the work will help you figure out what you love to do most. Where I see a lot of unhappiness in writing circles (and in academic circles, for that matter) is when you forget what you love because you’re trying desperately to make people notice (often in a crowded room where nearly everyone is doing the same thing), or you’re noticed and it’s not the kind of notice you want and it makes you squirm, or you’re awaiting notice from a first reader or an editor or reviewers and the anxiety is eating you up.
It’s a truism these days that writing is half marketing and self-promotion. If so, it’s not the kind of life I want to have. In reality, money and attention is not a terribly good measure of a writer’s worth. Lots of fantastic writers can’t make a living from writing and promoting their books. Even those who do seem perennially uncertain how the next book will be received. I’m always amazed by how insecure even the most successful writers can be.
The fact is, we can’t live a happy life through the prestige our work brings us, any more than we can live through the lives of our children. We have to pay attention to what we love, whether it’s our kids or our work. If I have a new year’s resolution, it’s to be more aware of what I really care about and let that shape my daily choices of what to do with my energies.
photo courtesy of Joe Philipson
Edited to add: I just read a great talk by Bethany Nowviskie, a digital humanities scholar and brilliant blogger, who cites a line from William Morris that suddenly seemed to fill a gap in this post. Doing what you love doesn’t mean always enjoying what you’re doing. It can be frustrating, discouraging, head::desk inducing and sometimes repetitively so. Knowing the difference between something you are doing because you think you ought to even though you hate it and doing something difficult because the work you love and are trying to do well demands it is sometimes a challenge. Morris said “you can’t have art without resistance in the material.” So next time I bang my head against something, I’ll try to remember this and figure out if it’s external influences that are driving my activities or if it’s the material itself putting up a fight.