Tuesday, September 14, 2010

On Doing What You Love

        In 1957, American writer and cartoonist Allen Saunders (creator of the stories behind the Apple Mary cartoon strip whose fictional protagonist was Mary Worth) wrote these words: “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” This brilliant observation didn’t become famous until the late super-Beatle John Lennon  borrowed and paraphrased it in “Beautiful Boy” a couple of decades later, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate or any less introspective in nature.
I often remind myself of this maxim when I find I’m getting upset because things aren’t “going according to plan”, or when I start getting anxious about “reaching a destination”. I mention this because I think I’m pretty typical in this sense and have to make (and do) a conscious effort not to be. I’ve occasionally come across—and quite possibly envied—people who weren’t. I’m talking about people who hear a different drummer, and take heed, from the outset. I mean, we all conform to a certain extent, if we live in anything like civilized society, but these are individuals whose plan seems either to be “no plan” except to live the moment, or to be such a spectacularly great plan that I ask myself how they get away with it. I usually try to placate myself—as do most people, I would guess— by choosing to think that these people have had better breaks than I have, that they’ve been afforded a better destiny, that they’ve had stronger contacts, wealthier families, better jobs, and so on. But if I’m honest with myself, that’s not true, or at least not entirely so. They’ve just made better choices and picked better timing for those choices. Moreover, they’ve been more focused and their focus has been  guided by their heart and their gut more than by their so-called obligations and duties, and surely more than by their fears.
But, as Pablo Neruda said—and despite my inhibitions and self-imposed obligations and endless excuses—“I confess that I have lived.” Not like Neruda, admittedly, and perhaps not even frequently. But then again, not always like my duty-bound and otherwise often pent-up self either. Occasionally, I have busted out, as it were, and when that has happened, it has, as that other great poet, Robert Frost, once wrote, “made all the difference.”     
I recently read a statement that Paul A. Toth—a wonderfully non-mainstream, non-conformist writer with whom I recently became Internet ‘pen pals’—had written about “self-actualization”. After reading it, I realized that I wasn’t quite sure what self-actualization really meant, so I decided to bone up.
Caption: Abraham Maslow (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
It seems that the best known theory of self-actualization is attributed to American social psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970). Maslow theorized that all human motivation resulted from a hierarchy of needs. In other words, people started out with their most basic psychological needs—safety, a sense of belonging, self-esteem—and once these were gradually satisfied, continued seeking to satisfy ever more complex psychological needs, culminating in what he called “self-actualization”. Maslow said, in a nutshell, that each level of accomplishment directed an individual’s behavior toward another level that was not being adequately met. The further the individual progressed, then, the more difficult it became to fulfill the needs of the next, higher level. This, in short, became a lifelong process with few individuals ever reaching true self-actualization.
The idea seemed simple enough. If true, it could explain a lot about both ambition and frustration. But it also got me to thinking, not so much about the process of self-actualization as such, but more about the process of getting to the point at which you can even think about self-actualizing. Seen from today’s perspective, when you read Maslow’s theory, if you are a normal, everyday working stiff, you tend to think, “Okay, the guy’s not talking about me or about people like me.” Why? Because self-actualization has the ring of some higher order to it: like, right, this is for somebody who has his/her life together and now, with the free time I don’t have, can think about seeking out a form of life on a higher plane. This is not about “life in the anthill”, but about a real life of truly free choices.
Truth be told, Maslow was writing in a very different time, considering that he died in 1970. A lot has happened since then. Admittedly, some of it has been good, like the fact that I can write this blog and instantly publish it and send it out to all of you, no matter where in the world you and I happen to be, or that guys like me are able to use this technology to make a living in the international marketplace without ever having to leave the house. But along with this brave new world have come a number of social and economic changes that can only be seen as undesirable side-effects: like the ‘globalization’ that they sold us as a cure-all for poverty, unemployment and manufacturing quality, but that has resulted in globalized poverty, extreme concentration of wealth, cruel competition for too few jobs, poor working conditions, ephemeral job security, poor pay and ever lower standards at all levels. The fact that people have to work harder and longer in order to maintain some semblance of their former living standards, means that “personal self-actualization” keeps getting left “for when I have more time”.
I should note that I’m just thinking out loud here—spitballing, as they say. And I certainly don’t pretend to be speaking for everyone. I’m sure there are lots of people who feel that they have come quite close to achieving their potential and are at least marginally content with their jobs, their careers, their social standing, and with the level of personal success they’ve had in reaching their self-imposed goals (all of which, as I understand it, has a lot to do with self-actualization).
And I should also point out that writer types, like myself, tend to be sort of permanent malcontents, who always seem to think that allowances should be made for their ‘condition’ and that somebody should be kind enough to cover for them—at least for the time being—so that they can get down to the only thing that they consider their real work and the only thing that really matters to them: namely, writing! This is why a lot of writers have spent years trudging from one awful job to another by the time they finally break into print, refusing to take on anything complicated or even enjoyable enough to make them lose focus on their craft.
There are some rather famous examples of this that range from the pathetic to the hilarious.
For instance, Stephen King talks, in his non-fiction work, On Writing, about how he wrote at night after working days in a laundry that washed hospital bedding and how the sheets crawled with maggots that fed on the blood and gore that stained them in the summertime and how he once found a full set of human teeth in the pocket of a surgical tunic. But he still considered himself lucky because he was making an extra piece of change riding the crest of the first alternative girlie mags that sought to compete with Playboy and, for a while, carried short stories—some of which he was able to sell them—before they dropped all literary pretenses and started showing a lot more skin (and other stuff) than Playboy did.
Caption: William Faulkner, 1954, photo by Carl Van Vechten (U.S. Library of Congress)

There is a delightful anecdote—though I have no way of corroborating its veracity—about a time when William Faulkner briefly worked at the University of Mississippi Post Office. By all accounts he took the job because he needed the paycheck but was worse than terrible at it, spending most of his time on the job drinking whisky, playing cards and writing. One day, so the story goes, a post office official came in to find a line of people at the counter and no one there to attend them. He found Faulkner at a table in the back, hard at work on a piece of writing. The official angrily asked what Faulkner thought he was doing, when people were lined up at the counter with no one to wait on them. The author responded just as angrily that he wasn’t about to interrupt his work “every time some sonuvabitch wants to buy a two-cent stamp.”
Caption: Henry Miller, 1940, photo by Carl Van Vechten (U.S. Library of Congress)
One of the most famous self-actualization decisions in contemporary literature is, perhaps, that of Henry Miller. He didn’t decide to be a writer until the 1930s, when he was nearly middle-aged. But after that, he refused to retreat a single pace from that decision, living the artist’s life from then on, surviving more on his charm and his wits than on any serious attempt to ever hold any job other than that of writer again. He symbolizes this in Tropic of Capricorn, when he describes the decision of his main character and narrator—who shares his name in what is a semi-fictional, partly autobiographical work—who walks out on his surreal job as a manager at the ‘Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company’ (Miller worked briefly in such a job for Western Union), never to return.         
In On Where I’m Calling From, Raymond Carver recalls how he “tried to learn to write fast when I had the time”, while doing a variety of menial jobs that never seemed to pay enough to get him and his family to the end of the month. This is a genuine case of not being able to focus on self-actualization from the outset since Carver found himself a husband (to a sixteen-year-old girl) and father when he was barely nineteen. He supported his wife and newborn daughter, and the son who was born the following year, by working as a janitor, in a sawmill, as a delivery man, a hospital porter, a library assistant, an encyclopedia salesman, a textbook editor, and a service station attendant, among other low-paying jobs. His difficulty coping with this life led to his ever-worsening alcoholism.
Despite “writing fast” it took Carver thirteen years to turn out a slim—but absolutely incomparable—volume of prose called Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?  He was, then, a writer for whom, one might argue, self-actualization really ended up being postponed by the stricture of his self-inflicted guilt, responsibility and feeling of inadequacy, that kept him focused on finding one ‘nowhere’ job after another to keep family, body and soul together, while a gradual decline into alcoholism ended up defeating the purpose of that focus too. But the writing lived on and—despite his not having his other more basic psychological demands under control—triumphed. Born in 1938, it wasn’t until this first book of short fiction was published in 1976 that he took stock of his life and gave up drinking, which had been largely responsible for the recent breakup of his marriage.  
Now living with poet Tess Gallagher, Carver created a new life for himself that bore no resemblance at all to the former one. This provided him with a brief but prolific eleven-year run in which he reached the level of recognition that his work deserved before dying at age fifty. In that single decade, besides teaching English at Syracuse University, he also wrote and published four volumes of short stories and three collections of poetry, being awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship and the prestigious Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award for his efforts. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1988, the last year of his life.
This past week, I had a running Web dialogue with some other writer friends and colleagues. I don’t know how we got onto the subject, but what was striking about our childhood memories was that none of us could recall when he or she hadn’t wanted to be a writer. Writer/editor Jessica Morrell remembered, for instance, how her mother had told her that the first word out of her mouth wasn’t ma-ma or da-da, but book! Poet Carl Grimsman recalled creating his first storybook when he was four. It was a study in blue called Castles and once he had created the content, he got his mother to act as bookbinder and staple it together for him. Writer Yolanda Fivas remembered knowing how to write a handful of words as a pre-kindergarten infant and wanting to tell a story inspired by the trees, but being frustrated because she didn’t have enough words to do it. Novelist Fara Spence and I shared separate memories of pre-school days when both of us invented symbols to represent the stories in our heads and were content to scribble those and then “read” our stories to others until somebody deigned to teach us the ABCs.
Okay, don’t despair, I’m coming to a point here…
And I guess the point is that perhaps Maslow doesn’t have it quite right, or at least not for some of us. True, maybe some people are born clueless and sort of stumble from one level of self-actualization to another until they get interested in something and then get excited about it, and then get ambitious about it. But maybe there are also people who don’t have to go through nearly so many stages of development before knowing precisely what it is that they want to be and do and accomplish. And maybe the strength of those urges is very nearly equal to what Maslow refers to as basic psychological needs. I talk about writers and artists and musicians because they’re what I understand best. But I’m sure this must be true of other human endeavors as well, of people who seem to be born knowing what it is that they want to do—indeed, that they might almost feel they have to do.
In The Teachings of Don Juan, anthropologist and writer Carlos Castaneda describes a scene in which his Yaqui mentor, don Juan Matus, tries to dissuade him of his white man’s attachment to meaningless priorities. In few words, the message of the Yaqui brujo—as I interpret it, at least—was that nothing that Man can do has any real importance whatsoever, but at the same time, everything that one does is of the utmost importance. This may sound like a bit of an oxymoron, but in reality, it holds an important and highly liberating message. The message is that, within the scheme of infinity, Man, and even the earth itself, are a mere blink of an eye, part of a vast experiment. Within that context what we as individuals do or don’t do with our lives is about as important, in a cosmic sense, as the life goals of an ant might be to us—just before we poison, drown or step on it.
Depending on your mood on any given day, this thought might seem singularly depressing. But seen from a glass-half-full viewpoint, it is truly liberating. What it means is that there is nothing more important, there is no greater priority, than whatever it is that you want to do with your life, or with this year, or with this day. Nor can or should anyone else be permitted to set your priorities for you. There is no authority higher than your own heart, your own drives and your own true—as opposed to learned—convictions. The message is, be whatever in the world you want to be, and be the very best at it that you can be. You hold the key to your own achievement and happiness. No one and nothing can give you that, nor can they take it away, unless you let them.    
The fact that you fail to do what is expected of you is of no importance whatsoever—or rather, it only garners the importance that you lend it. What is important, to you as an individual, is to do what fills you with happiness, to do, as the expression goes, what you love and to love what you do.


Murr Brewster said...

I was recently host to a group of bright 25-year-olds who were all unemployed and who talked about the particular generational paralysis they experienced because they had all been told, from infancy, that they should do "whatever they wanted to do." As bright as each one was, they all laughed and whinged, "somebody please tell me what I want to do!" Clearly it is important to follow one's heart and to tell oneself the truth, but some of life's strictures (such as the need for food and shelter) are conducive to mental health. As a sometime artist, I am happier having limits put on my work ("this is good, but can you make something in blues and greens that fits over my sofa?") than working in the yawning, limitless world of possibility. I also enjoy writing while constricted (by word count, subject, or, in the case of the NPR 3-minute fiction contest, first and last lines). I enjoy the other sort of writing, also.

I believe there is a nobility in the performance of menial but useful labor. I enjoyed my 32 years in the post office--and thank you for that vignette about Faulkner--which didn't prevent me from creating. In fact, it supported it. The ability to punch out every day sets the mind free; the modest but adequate pension does that even better. If I had undertaken to make a living as a writer, I would not have been as happy, I suspect. (That's just me; some of us folks are meant to be drones, and others must run their own show.) But I remain a writer, artist and musician, even without monetary compensation. You can't take that away from a person.

Dan Newland said...

Murr, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I quite agree with you and my point certainly wasn't that people with a talent shouldn't develop other skills. In fact, you seem to be the kind of well-balanced individual I always wished I could be. Nor do I think you can just tell your kids to "do whatever they want to" without finding out what that might be and encouraging them in every way you can, but without ordering them to be whatever you would have them be.
The point here is that you had a job you could "punch out of" and that, I believe, is healthy and perhaps would even serve to keep "artist types" in harness. I, instead, sought jobs that were "similar" - I told myself - to what I wanted to do, which was to write fiction (literature) and non-fiction (sort of easy-going political and anthropological travel books and articles).
Instead, I worked in killer jobs with killer deadlines and no set timetable (24/7) in newspapers and magazines, and in translating projects, etc. And because of my bent for perfectionism and recognition, no matter how hard I tried to remain a simple "foot soldier", I always ended up being a chief, being in charge, "being the job" and leaving everything I loved "for later".
Well, now it's later...much later. And my best advice, based on my own experience, to people like myself who tend to obsess and to never give themselves an even break and to feel they are "never giving enough" in their jobs unless they've reach the breaking point, can only be, don't be bound by the strictures of what you've been conditioned to do. Break out, throw off your chains, DO WHAT YOU LOVE, do it well and succeed at it, by your own definition of success.

Murr Brewster said...

Oh, that poignant "now it's later...much later." That's the only thing I don't like about getting older: being closer to dead.

I wonder how much we are hard-wired to be ambitious, or the opposite. Surely a huge part of maturity for any personality sort is to be able to recognize how much of what we've told ourselves our whole lives is a fable, even if it's our own, legitimate fable. My favorite all-time bumper sticker is "Don't believe everything you think."

I spent most of my life thinking I could be a good writer even though I spent very little time doing it. I played with phrases in my head all the time but rarely put anything down, except for letters to the editor and commemorative doggerel for birthdays, retirements, etc. It took one (young!) person to challenge me, in my mid-fifties, to produce one thing for him to read, to finally get the ball rolling, and now I don't know where it will stop. He had sized me up and knew just what sort of kick in the pants I needed.

This is what I always wanted to do "some day," but I was well aware of my lack of ambition, and didn't think I'd really come through for myself. That boy did me a big favor.

I'm curious: do you think you can overcome your own perfectionism? Or does it work in your favor?

Dan Newland said...

Yes, Murr, I definitely think perfectionism is my great advantage...as long as I quit applying it to other people's goals and businesses in detriment to my own.
That's what I'm doing more and more now and it's working, to the point that I now hold out great expectations for reaching some of those goals that I've long postponed.
I should note that I have always had the ambition to write and have taken the time to do it as well, beyond journalism where I made my living writing for many years. What I never seemed to find the time and knowhow for was PROMOTING my other writing and getting it published. Blogging is bringing me "out of the closet" so to speak, as a creative writer and that's a direction I'm taking with ever surer feet, while reorganizing my other writing and translating activities.
I should also note that this piece is meant to have a positive message. It's not bellyaching, but an assertion of the view that we need to give ourselves permission to do and to focus on what we love, without, of course, as you wisely point out, throwing everything else in our lives under the bus.