Sunday, June 3, 2012

Making Jack a Dull Boy

When I was a kid, I knew what was work and what wasn't.

Work was school, homework, mowing the lawn, and Sunday school.  (I eventually traded one job for another, being allowed out of Church/Sunday school in exchange for mowing the lawn.  I regarded it, and would still regard it, if there were anybody around to force me to go to church, as a good swap.)

Play was going into the woods in the morning and not coming out till dark.  (Kids could do that then.)  It was reading all day, preferably some book that my mother did not approve.  Later, it was girls, and after that it was theater.  I still don't know a more magical space than a theater as a play comes together.  Also, theaters are a great place to meet girls.

And then I hit the tough twenties with college behind me, and work was anything I wouldn't have done if they hadn't paid me.  It meant selling my life, one day at a time, whether the job was enjoyable or not.  Even now, with that period far behind me, I regret how many years I devoted to working for a living when it was clear that that the living I was working for wasn't worth the work I was doing for it.  If there were any way to buy those years back, I'd give most of my earthly goods to do it.

You're probably saying--those of you who have made it this far--"But when you love your work, it's different."

Well, yeah.

And no.

I'm at a point in my life when I literally don't have to do anything for any length of time, any day of the week, that I don't want to do.  I get up, caffeinate, talk to my wife, go for a run, do some email or other e-chores, caffeinate again, and write.  All my life, I've been saying, "If all I had to do was write . . ." and now all I have to do is write.  It's close to being my only responsibility.

And I'm turning it into work.

The distressing truth is that I find myself delaying writing: reading a little extra of whatever's at hand, making lists of ditsy little things to do just for the pleasure of crossing them off as the day ticks on, and by the time I get around to making up a story, it's often three or four PM and I've only got a few hours at the keyboard before I hit the 7 PM do-not-cross line.  If I write much after seven, my gears won't disengage and I lie in bed for hours, thinking, "What happens if he goes to a bar instead of a restaurant?" or "Maybe she isn't who she says she is."  And I'm up all night.

It would appear that I've misunderstood all my life the fundamental difference between work and play.  Work is whatever you're supposed to be doing.  Play is everything else.

This is a disconcerting realization.  What happens when you finally get to do what you've always wanted to do and it turns out to be work?  Does that plant you permanently in the Dull Boy side of the room?  (Or Dull Girl, of course; dullness is definitely not a sex-linked trait.)

Well, maybe not.  One of the oddest things about life--my life, anyway--is that I forget that some things are only momentarily unpleasant.  Starting a diet, for example, since I've started so many of them; it always looks like a vast wasteland dotted with salads, and the only people in sight are those who have been sent to pick off the croutons.  In fact, once I start, it's exhilarating; I'm actually doing something right.  Or running--the image of me plodding along, red-faced and panting, doesn't yield to the sheer joy of piling up a few miles on a perfect day until I've been doing it for a week or two.

And I know that If I sit there and slam out one word after another for a while, I'll suddenly realize that it's been a couple of hours and that these people are interesting.  (And that I have virtually no control over them.)  Jeez, look where the story went.  And who knew that was coming?  It becomes both a joy and a mystery, since after all these years I still have no idea how it works.

Yet I persist in putting this "work wall" around it.  Something is fundamentally wrong when I'd rather play another meaningless hand of Texas Hold'em on my Kindle or Google "antidisestablishmentarianism" or the original date of Christmas than do the thing that actually gives me the most satisfaction.  Maybe it's the fear of failure, disguising itself as reluctance to--here's that word again--work.

A while back, I wrote a blog that said I was going to try to think of writing as play.  Guess it's time to give that a try again.

Tim -- Sunday


  1. Wise as ever, Tim. When I was a journalist, I dreamed of writing for pleasure, not to deadlines, and creating my own stories rather than those which fitted the ideas of a news editor. Now of course, I miss the deadlines to stop me procrastinating, and yearn for a firm editorial hand to let me know whether what I'm doing is along the right lines. Then, like you, when I sit and write I get lost in what I'm doing. Then I remember what I'm doing beats working for a living....

    Until the next day, when I do all I can to avoid sitting down to write. Maybe writing is wasted on writers?

  2. Somewhere 30-35 years ago, I fell in love with creating games that can be played on computers. I found it FASCINATING and created them in every spare moment. As the years passed, I dreamt of making a living at it... and then about 23 years ago, I started doing JUST that. And now? I could take it or leave it. Been there, done that. Except... I STILL love it, when the cool idea strikes, and it's just me playing on the computer.

    What I've come to realize is that 'work' is doing whatever you feel compelled FROM THE OUTSIDE to do, and 'play' is whatever you feel compelled FROM THE INSIDE to do.

    As soon as you start sharing your 'play' with others, their expectations and desires start becoming albatrosses (albatrise? :-) around your neck.

    That's not to say I don't WANT and EXPECT you to continue to turn out great novels that I LOVE to read, Tim. In fact, why the hell aren't you busy writing RIGHT NOW??? Fer cryin' out loud, it's NINE O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING!!! What better time to get the juices going, and...

    When I'd see actors or writers say, "Oh, I never watch my own movies," or "I NEVER read the reviews!" I always thought, "That's kind of silly, you mean you don't CARE about the quality of your work?" But I realize now that those two things aren't related at all. In fact, to maintain "work as play," you pretty much HAVE to ignore what others think of what you do. 'Play' is what you do for yourself. When you start doing it for others, it becomes 'work.'

  3. Your reference to "gear" made me remember how I sometimes--and emphasize sometimes--successfully handled the pressures of being the point man practicing "crisis" law. I'd say to myself, "It's time to put the clutch in." Then I'd go off and do whatever else it was that I was to do and let the drive shaft and transmission wildly do their thing without me.

    Yes, at times re-engaging involved an unpleasant gnashing of teeth, but nothing's easy. Unless of course you happen to have your own driver, like Patterson.

  4. We simply are not as logical as we would like to be, nor as orderly. I think we need some discipline or we go sliding all over the dish, so to speak. So you keep writing good stuff, taking time off to hang loose. You are the one who names it -work or whatever. Just my mixed metaphor ridden pep talk for this Sunday morning :)

  5. Hi, Lil -- Maybe "discipline" is the key. I think about my writing in terms of discipline -- I don't quit when it's going badly, I sit down to it seven days a week, etc. -- and I've always equated discipline with things I don't enjoy, i.e., work. This is clearly a mindset issue, and I have to work on it.

    Jeffrey, I remember times when I was working in the traditional sense when I would walk out of the office and just drive around LA or take cabs around NY, luxuriating in the experience of not being at work. Didn't matter whether it was something I would normally enjoy. You're absolutely right--nothing is easy, and that CERTAINLY includes writing. But it is, at times, deeply joyful, and that's the part I need to summon up when it starts to feel like work.

    Everett, that's right. Work is what's imposed upon you by outside forces, and even the thing you love to do most can become work when there are deadlines and you're overcommitted and you owe things to people and you can't figure out how to shoehorn a few more hours into the day. But I still need to deal with it, and so do you, or so it sounds.

    Hey, Dan -- when we get what we want, it sometimes turns out to have its own little packet of challenges. Certainly one of them for me is the fact that I now feel that other people expect my writing to be GOOD -- I mean they're investing money in it and people's jobs depend on sales (not just my books, obviously, or they'd all be living in refrigerator boxes, but the publication list as a whole). In the old days, people were surprised when I turned out something good, and now there's all this pressure. And that's obviously the root of the reluctance to start to work: fear of failure.

  6. Let me put it to you simply: "You ain't gonna fail, schmuck, so stop worrying." There, I hope that makes you feel better. It always did when my mother said it to me--though with a lot more class:)

  7. Heh!

    I definitely see writing as work. I'm not sure if this is totally a bad thing, in my case -- I like feeling that I have a responsibility, a job to do, and thinking of it that way helps me depersonalize the process, somewhat, and lessens the horrible self-consciousness I have about showing what I do to other people.

    The fear of failure, of letting people down, the weight of expectations -- OH yeah. Is there some way we could just skip this part from now on?

  8. If you figure it out, Lisa, I'll pay for the explanation. Jeffrey, you know as well as I do that you never know when you sit down whether you're going to produce junk or gold (or at least iron pyrites) and when the junk days stretch on, it's easy to lose faith in your ability to do anything good.

  9. Of course you're right, Tim. It's just that denial is my preferred way of coping:)