The work is the reward. (Luckily)
“I started out with nothing, and I’ve still got most of it left.” That old Vermont saying pretty much captures the career I've had, myself, as a full-time, self-employed writer up here for over 30 years. Not complaining; but in the bleakness of winter, I have been reflecting. Has it been worth it? Is it still?
I’ve had the thrill of seeing 14 books published. Many have failed, as most books do. Just one has made a real impact: my young-adult novel The Revealers has been read and discussed by well over 1,000 middle schools. I continue to visit schools that work with that book, 11 years after its first publication. I’m very, very lucky; without those visits I would surely be out of business by now. The market for cranking out newsletter articles, fundraising appeals, annual reports and so forth, by which I made my living for many years before The Revealers caught on, just doesn’t exist in the same way any more.
I’m not giving up or signing off; I’m plugging away, hoping and expecting I can find more work and have got more books in me, including one coming out this spring, and another in process. And lately I’ve read a couple of things that have helped me see — or, really, to remember — what’s really important. What really matters. And that is the work.
President Obama helped me recall this, just the other day. Maybe you saw it. Interviewed for the Facebook project “Humans of New York," he was asked when he had felt the most broken. He recalled his first Congressional race, which he lost badly.
“I just got whooped,” Obama said. “But the thing that got me through that moment, and any other time that I’ve felt stuck, is to remind myself that it’s about the work. Because if you’re worrying about yourself—if you’re thinking: ‘Am I succeeding? Am I in the right position? Am I being appreciated?’ --- then you’re going to end up feeling frustrated and stuck. But if you can keep it about the work, you’ll always have a path.”
Myself, I’ve had the experience in a very limited way of people thinking you’ve made it, you’re somebody; and I can reflect that one of my books has become some very (very) small part of the culture. It will outlive me, most likely. Does that transform my days, lift me onto some higher plane? No. Of course not. We all have our stuff to work with and work through, wherever we are in life, whatever we seem to have achieved. No matter who or what we seem to be.
So it is the work. That's where the meaning is — where the reward can be found, and rediscovered at a bleak time like this. When I was starting out and developing a sense of what I hoped to do, my best ambition was not that I’d be rich or famous. It was that I could achieve a situation where I could do the best work I had it in me to do. That was it; I remember now. We can lose track, feel discouraged about outward circumstances; but if we can do the work, as the President puts it so beautifully, we will always have a path.
Even so, we won’t necessarily clutch a gold statue or walk a red carpet. (Or even ever, as a writer, drive a new car.) I read a reflection on this very issue by Nick Hornby, the fine British novelist, interviewed in The Atlantic about his work and his newest novel, Funny Girl. Hornby, who wrote the screenplays for “Wild” and other films, describes the emptiness of walking the actual, literal red carpet.
“You have to shuffle down the line and talk to endless people with cameras pointing at you who actually are more interested in talking to someone behind you. Of course, it’s different if you’re Reese Witherspoon. People actually want to talk to her. But there’s no fun in it for Reese, either. There’s no possibility of fun on a red carpet! It’s completely ridiculous.
“That’s pretty much a symbol of the whole thing. Once you realize that, everything else starts to fall away, and all you’re left with is the work.”
That’s it, isn’t it? What we are left is the work, and that is not an emptiness. At all. In fact it’s more than enough to be grateful for, even in the depths of February.
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