Know Your Job

I used to work lunches at a restaurant in Providence. The lunches were slow enough that our entire staff most days consisted of one cook, a dishwasher, and me. For those for hours I was busboy, waiter, host, and bartender. On the days when it did get busy, when the place filled up and there were people waiting to be seated and a margarita to be blended and food sitting in the pass shelf and two orders to be taken and three tables needing to be cleared, I could feel as if I was drowning in my customers’ mounting disappointment. This was uncomfortable, but at least I knew what my job was. That I hadn’t the time to do it properly was the consequence of life’s unpredictability, not my facility.

I would eventually begin the job of professional writer. This appeared to be a simpler job than waiting tables, as there was only my story and me, and life’s unpredictability seemed to play little if no role in my work. And yet often I would find myself at my desk accompanied by a familiar discomfort. It was reminiscent of those busy days working solo lunches, only worse. It was as if I was responsible not only for serving customers, but for creating them as well. I didn’t know how to do that, but if I didn’t, I would fail. I felt some days as if I had been told to step onstage and improvise Hamlet.

It would take me years to understand that I was trying to do something that wasn’t my job. I cannot do my imagination’s job; I can only create an environment within me that permits my imagination to function most effortlessly. It is easy to forget this. My imagination is responsible for my livelihood, for my very survival, and how I wish some days I could grab hold of it and bend it to my worried needs. But grabbing my imagination is as useless as grabbing another person; I might clutch a child in my adult hands, but that child’s freewill remains entirely beyond my reach.

I must remember my job every day I sit down to work. How much easier things go when I do. The child that is my imagination wants only to play within the garden of thought, and it does not care about the past or the future or death or sex or money. I am the one that sometimes cares about those things. Meanwhile, the imagination does its only job, and awaits my return to the garden we have both enjoyed.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

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The Beginning and The End

I’ve interviewed enough writers to notice a cumulative trend: Many writers have worked a day job they did not particularly love, yet made a fine living at it anyway. Every writer I know who makes a living writing, loves to write. Even writers who don’t make a living writing love to write.

I used to be a waiter. It wasn’t bad work: I liked people, I liked moving around, I liked wine and food. Also, the world seems to need a lot of waiters. It’s hard to be an unemployed waiter. So it wasn’t bad work. I would not, however, have worked one minute as a waiter without the guarantee that I would be paid to do so. I will not tell you how many books, how many pages, how many words I wrote for which I was not nor will ever be paid a single cent.

But like most jobs, waiting tables serves a physical need. Like most jobs, waiting tables is a part of the never-ending business of not-dying, of staying clothed and fed, of trading stuff, of building stuff, and of knowing the rules of the world. It’s all very practical. The physical world is a practical place. You’ve got to chop some wood if you want to stay warm in the cold, cold winter.

The arts, of which writing is a part, are a little different. Yes, a book is a product, but this product serves only purpose, and it’s not a particularly practical one: to make people happy. People consume art not to keep themselves alive, but simply because they love it. That is the currency of art – love. Money comes with it, but first there is love.

Which is why, I think, the artist must love his or her work. It’s a transfer of love, after all. The writer says, “I love this idea! I want to write it.” Then an agent says, “I love it! I want to sell it.” And then a publisher says, “I love it! I want to publish it.” And then a reader says, “I love it! I want to tell other people about it.” And onward turns this great, impractical cycle, as books, just like the people who write and read them, will always begin and end in exactly the same place.

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Dream Job

I could have been a professional football player. I am not saying I ever ran as fast as the average NFL wide receiver; or even a below average wide receiver. I also never played college football, so professional scouts were never given the opportunity to scout me. Despite this, the single biggest obstacle to me joining the NFL was not my size or my speed or my lack of college-level experience, but the unalterable fact that I did not want to be a professional football player.

Mind you, as a boy I watched football with my father and brother and sister every Sunday from September to January. The four of us formed Kenower Power, our family touch football team, which managed to go undefeated for one glorious fall. I even became the starting wide receiver for my high school’s team. Often, when my father was tossing me fly patterns at the park, I would imagine myself playing for the New England Patriots or the Oakland Raiders, sprinting down the sidelines beneath the stadium’s bright lights, the cheering, the color man’s adulation, more cheering. From a certain distance, it seemed like a good job.

Yet to be a professional football player, I must be willing to spend most of my time playing, practicing, or studying football. I would also be required to spend most of my time with other football players. This is the life of a professional football player. As any writer knows, the public only gets to see the very tip of anyone’s career iceberg. The rest remains submerged beneath the waters of un-glorious work.

I once heard Tom Brady, the current quarterback for the New England Patriots, discuss his love of football. “I love it all,” he said. “I love playing it. I love watching film. I love training camp. I even love wind sprints. Can you believe that? It’s true, though. I love it all.”

Which is why Tom Brady is an NFL quarterback.  Any work you love is glorious to you. In fact, work you love is not really work; at least not in the traditional, pragmatic, roof-over-your-head sense. Work you love is life’s gift to you. So I could have been a football player if only I had loved it. I loved writing more. No matter. Love always seeks its fullest expression, a fullness known never in form but in feeling.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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