This is adapted from an email I recently sent to an old friend.
I had an incredible workshop leader a couple years back that was a bit precious about his approach to writing. He was all about guarding his time with his “craft” at all costs, protecting it from the demands of the market, insisting that writers should find other ways to feed themselves to make sure their art remains art. At first I was like sure, being a purist about one’s time is seductive, but it is also privileged and assumes that one gets no satisfaction from art one gets “commissioned” to do. Why does stuff that is accessible to consumers have to be in a different category than stuff one does for oneself or fun or “art”? Why not both?
After ten years of writing commissioned Young Adult novels, and getting back on the commercial train of freelance these past two years, I can say there does appear to be a difference between what people pay you to do and what one does for the hell of it on your own time. Artists have been saying this for years and I refused to listen. I thought my creativity was under my control; or rather, I thought that when I asked it to perform for me, it would, no matter what the circumstances. I’ve procrastinated, sure, and I’ve had blocks, but I’m a pro. I take the proverbial alka seltzer and get back on the ol’ pony, which in this analogy, is an ergonomic chair. Writing rule number one, get your ass in the seat. I can do that. So I thought I’d never have any problems producing. Even if it’s shit, at least something’s moving. I’ve learned this is not true. But I’m still not sure why it’s not true, and why it hurts so much.
Money ruins everything. At least it has for me. Even though my commercial work played with fun concepts (themes that I, too, might explore on my own time) there seems to be, more and more, a certain point where I realize the core of what I’m doing is empty. Not of content, and not even of value to the world, but of [ something ]. I really hate the word “passion” being thrown about carelessly, like a free t-shirt one gets at a conference, so I won’t use it. Vivre, maybe, because I’m pretentious. Anyway, it’s always at the end of the project, where I need a reserve shot of energy in order to see the project to completion, and what I need isn’t there. This cycle of hate keeps happening. I come to hate the one thing I love above all else, and destroy my body in the process. My friends have seen it, my family has seen it. Perhaps they’re as sick of it as I am. It goes like this:
Phase one: I get the assignment and I tell everyone about it, ecstatic that I’m getting paid to put words together. I explain the project is kind of [insert not-explicitly-negative-but-coded-negative adjective here, i.e. corny, corporate], but I’m excited to collaborate with [editor], and I think (key word: think, it’s probably not that cool) we have an [innovative, attentive, exciting, funny] approach to the usual way of doing [genre / commercial category].
Phase two: I run into roadblocks. I had hoped to incorporate [x], but editor tells me that their boss (it’s rarely the editor themselves, and I believe this is true) doesn’t feel my [x] fits with [the y genre / commercial category]. I’m disappointed, but editor and I find a compromise between [x] and [y]. I’m happy; I’m giving them what they want, and I’m still trying something new, something I care about executing.
Phase three: The first draft is complete, but something has gone wrong. I’m new to the [y] genre, so it’s understandable. Or, editor didn’t communicate their desires about [y] well enough. Or, editor thought our [xy] compromise was going to work, but their boss is still not happy. They’re happy with all the [y] parts, though. I’m a very proficient [y] writer, they tell me. Please, keep up the [y]. I’m disappointed, but I want to be seen as a professional. I start adjusting my habits: I have realized I’m not going to be able to have the kind of fun I want, so I need to work harder in order to get it over with.
Phase four: Working hard has failed. Maybe it starts with sleep: I lose it over stress, which makes me eat worse, which makes me my mood drop. With my mood dropping, I drink more coffee, which elevates my heart rate, but rarely can bear the full weight of my mood. I’m anxious because of the coffee, so I instinctively and compulsively avoid the work that makes me anxious, but I know I have to complete it, so I try to push myself harder into doing what I don’t want to do, which makes me even more anxious. I put a lot of energy into appearing unruffled. The more affected I am, the thicker my professional facade.
Phase five: Reckoning. I admit to my peers, and eventually my editor, that this is not turning out how I’d like. That’s how I phrase it: how I’d like. This, too, is a lie. I’m in a daily battle with the fact that what I like doesn’t actually matter. What matters is completion of [y] according to the rules of [y genre]. I start getting more “just checking in” emails from my editor. We set “drop dead” dates. I miss them. We have more “honest” conversations; we re-strategize; we agree that I need more guidance; we agree I need less guidance; we agree that as long as I can get a working second draft, the third will be easier. The final “drop dead” date approaches, and it seems impossible I will ever get it done. I give myself permission to ignore the rest of my life, my inbox, my phone, my bladder. I go into a fugue state; I dissociate from myself as a human with particular tastes and style. I purposefully become too tired and caffeinated to care what I’m writing (in my 20s, I did this with alcohol, as well) and allow my fingers on the keyboard to take over. Somehow, the dawn of the deadline, a second draft emerges. Somehow, it resembles what they want. As I return to my body, I feel floaty, confused, and a strange sort of pride. I send my editor a manic email as the sun rises: “[Y] DRAFT ATTACHED! *Shania Twain voice* LOOKS LIKE WE MADE IT hahaha, right??? Anyway, THANK YOU SOOOO MUCH!”
Phase six: I feel done, euphoric. I feel like the worst is over. I can do this. I start talking to friends about my journey, about how I didn’t think I liked writing [y], but it’s not so bad! I think I’m getting the hang of it.* A week passes, and I get an email from my editor which starts with something like: “First of all, there’s a lot of great stuff here.” I am overcome with nausea. Any mention of “great stuff” means that moments of proficiency are scattered throughout a large scale failure. I scroll through the emailed comments, which I often think are going to end, but they never do. I try to take it like a pro. I thank the editor. I make a plan to revise. I sit down, and I become angry. I feel my skills are being doubted, my understanding of the assignment turned upside down, the estimate of my abilities shrinking with every highlighted section. I know in my heart that the edits will make the piece better, but a nagging voice in the back of my head asks, Why do I care whether or not this piece is good? I never wanted to write [y]. They asked me to do this, knowing I wanted [x] or [xy]. If they wanted [y] so much, they should have asked someone else. Each small edit sends a spidery thread up to these larger questions, which I have to cut or ignore in order to get through the edits, or else I’m paralyzed by a web of self-doubt and toxic ego. This means double the work: not only am I doing the physical work of revising, I’m doing the emotional work of talking myself down from existential disruption. Earlier in my career, this is when I would start drinking more. I’ll be honest: the drinking helped. But it quieted all inner voices; not just the rude, unprofessional ones. It muted gentleness, too.
*For one miraculous project a few years ago, the beginnings of phase six are where I stopped. The email about the second draft was an email about final edits. They loved my version of [y], and I loved it, too. Oddly, it was also at the lowest point of one of the most depressive states of my life. Fodder for a future therapist.
Phase seven: I cut the whining threads, day by day, draft after draft, and drink up tiny pools of relief in sending small chunks to editors, like those little cups of water they hand out during endurance races. In my 20s, I muted my angst with booze and cigarettes. Last year, with yoga, meditation, and (slightly more) honest conversations with (really wonderful) editors. Either way, I finish. I take off the too-small shoes, and the relief of bare feet erases all memory of the pain. I can see parts I like when I look at the document. I’m able to smile again when I talk about the project. Soon, someone reaches out about [z]. I’ve never worked in [z]. I could do cool things with [z]. They show me what it pays, and even after all a decade of doing this, I’m still dazzled, still feel undeserving. I think, I’ve learned my lesson. I have boundaries, now. I can hold fast to my heart while working my ass off. I shake their hand, and we’re back to phase one.
Last month, I didn’t get through phase six.
The rotten feeling I get as I claw toward the finish line keeps getting worse. In my most recent project, I found myself openly weeping more often than I ever have in my life. I couldn’t sit down at my computer without holding back tears. I couldn’t finish; I tried to overcome this lack of ending in every conceivable way. I wrote about my feelings, I tried to eat and sleep better, I tried to give myself small goals. But I was still miserable, and still woefully behind. Not only that, there was a whole team of people waiting on me for this writing; I had to do my job so they could do theirs. There’s an episode of Radiolab where they do a small segment on vocalizations of affection and aggression, and how they’re related. In the segment, they touched on tears, and why we release them, and what different tears mean. Generally, though, good or bad, tears mean the same thing: slow down or stop. Tears were coming everyday to talk to me, and I had no choice but to listen.
So, I quit the most lucrative writing gig I’ve ever had. The reason I gave to myself is that I am currently supposed to be finishing my thesis, not writing the [z genre]. (It is kind of wild, though, and truly was fun, at times, to learn a new way to build a narrative.) I agonized over quitting this for weeks, because I don’t like to be a quitter. But the core reason for taking the job haunted me: I didn’t take the job to “see a personal creative project through”; I took it because I was curious, and I needed money. My curiosity (I guess) was sated, I got some money, and I found I had no will to keep going. Writing in this context becomes a skill that sustains me financially, but not emotionally.
God, I wish I was different. I wish I could have just seen it through without losing my shit. I still don’t quite understand why I can’t have both, or why I can’t do one, then the other, then back to one. I wish it were that simple, that I could just do commercial work for good people, get paid, and be proud of a job well done. Then, go home to my beautiful wife, a literary manuscript. But I think my “soul” (whatever that is) is telling me that my writing is for something else. Probably not for something huge, but for some other personal purpose. Though I don’t quite understand all of it yet, I do see now why my workshop leader encouraged the separation of money and art. It’s hard to keep things light and fun and messy when it feels like your livelihood is on the line. It’s hard to play when you’re over-caffeinated, over-worked, or worried about being paid, and play is essential for good writing. Or at least it is for me.
This slow realization is why I reconnected to my old friend, who I was roommates with for a brief time New York (the friend whose email exchange inspired this post). We both worked a few jobs to pay the rent, but we spent our spare time making stupid videos. We hoped we’d get famous, but really we were just trying to make each other laugh. I was thinking, damn, what a joy it was to make art for no reason with this person. Not no reason, though. For each other. While we guard our time from the market, it’s also true that trusted eyes nourish art, like sunlight. Even if we don’t share everything, I still believe my friends make things for me, and I know I make things for them, and that’s enough to keep us going. We write because we love to write, and we love to write because we write to each other, as I’m writing to you, and that’s enough.