When was the last time you remember doing something that brought you joy? I’m not talking about a ten second orgasm or getting blind drunk and dissociating for an afternoon. I’m talking about doing the kind of thing that would have made you smile until your face hurt or give you that tingling sense of wonder that made you feel light and look forward to the next time you got to do it. I think joy is something that brings us to a moment in time where we are completely aware of where we are and what is happening. I think a lot of other things, though fun, are more of a diversion than something that makes us joyful.
I was thinking about this today because of the toxic work culture we have in this country. Work is not supposed to be something we enjoy. The other day, I editing my book for six hours solid. Eventually I had to stop because I was exhausted. Yet I felt a sense of guilt that I wasn’t doing some miserable task. I was using my skills to create something, working towards a goal. If you frame it like that, it was work. But nobody was overseeing me and nobody was promising to give me money in exchange for my time. So, that’s not work as I was brought up to believe. It’s more like a hobby, so I’ve been told. Or slacking. Or doing nothing. Six hours sure as hell didn’t feel like nothing.
Plus I always need to remind myself that the work I do when I am writing needs to be done. The book isn’t going to write or edit itself. In order to have it ready to publish, I’m going to have to put in the hours. Otherwise, it will just be something I’ve been fooling around with when I should have been making money for someone else.
I think of watching my dad throughout my life. He was brought up with the work ethic that said if you aren’t suffering you aren’t working. I think he has hated every work experience he has ever had. Even in his retirement when he is no longer driving a truck or beating the hell out of himself, he still has that same attitude towards work he chooses to do. He works on people’s cars and honestly I can’t remember any time when he got any enjoyment out of the process. Cars are always a piece of shit or take too long or any of several different complaints for what he does. Don’t get me wrong, with over fifty years experience, he has worked on plenty of cars, trucks, bulldozers, front end loaders, ATVs, motorcycles, and anything else that drives, revs, crawls, or goes vroom.
Yet he acts like it’s some sort of burden he carries. He’s always been like this. Almost as though if someone caught him doing something he enjoyed, they would take it away from him or tell him they didn’t need to pay him because he should be doing it for the sheer pleasure of it.
My mom makes soap and lotions and oils and bath products. She even sells it sometimes at craft shows and consignment stores, but she’s not looking to get rich off of it. I think she enjoys the creative process, the chemistry involved in putting ingredients together and coming up with something useful. My dad gets so jealous of her “little soap project” sometimes. It just shows how little he knows her sometimes and how much he wants others to feel miserable doing a “job.” I’ve seen my mom make soap for hours, and unlike him, she doesn’t collapse in a heap on the couch from exhaustion. I think it energizes her. She has a good time doing it too.
I have worked some awful jobs myself. I’ve sprayed out vault toilets in a state forest, I’ve scrubbed floors and washed dishes in a bakery, I’ve loaded trucks, I’ve picked through inventory, and talked on the phone for ten hours a day in a call center. I’ve raked hay and built haystacks by hand, swarming with flying ants. I’ve stocked shelves and dealt with cranky customers in retail. And I’ve done customer service work for twenty plus years in a college. Honestly, the last one nearly broke me. The arrogance of the faculty, the dismissive condescension of administrators. I sympathized with the students, and getting to help them brought me joy. I didn’t like microwaved fish in the breakroom or teambuilding or potluck dinners we had to bring food for while the top brass fucked off to Thailand every month for “conferences.” But I got some satisfaction from building schedules that got adjuncts profs and students the best rooms for their classes. I enjoyed editing the Academic Catalog and using FrameMaker to create a document everyone got to use. I enjoyed using my skills and talents to create a finished product.
Even if copywriting is sometimes tedious and exhausting, I still feel a sense of euphoria when I am finished with an assignment. The money is nice too, since it validates that ingrained nonsense about anything worth doing comes with a paycheck.
Right now the WGA is on strike, and they should be. As a freelancer, I appreciate the level of brainpower it takes to do something everyone is convinced they could easily do for free. Intellectual properties would be nothing without the minds that have stuck words together to form images and characters and storylines. Yet upper admins (who ruin everything to be honest) think they can hire robots to do it for cheaper. As though the human spirit could be captured by formulas, analytics and algorithms.
The reason there’s nothing good on TV isn’t because of writers. It’s because of investors who are too afraid to let the writers off the chain to create something new, because surveys and demographics show that people would rather see a live action version of a thirty year old cartoon than something new they might fall in love with.
Believe me, out there is probably a writer who is so sick of writing for Marvel and Star Wars that they make my dad’s grumblings look tame.
Anyway, I got a little sidetracked. What I’m trying to say is even though right now my pay isn’t ideal, writing gives me joy. Lots of things give me joy and I am working on doing more of these things. I experience joy through new experiences. My motto is do something every day that scares you. I’ve tried hot air ballooning, solo international travel, hiking, backpacking, skiing, photography, new foods, and sucking the marrow from life. As opposed to sucking the joy out of it. My writing gives me an excuse to push myself further and report back to an audience (as though I needed an excuse). I enjoy talking to strangers, hearing their stories, and constructing stories that I can share with others about the experience. I find joy in learning new things. Having new experiences. Tasting different flavors and occasionally having to stay up all night to get to the next day and the next destination.
It’s even better when I get paid because it lets me keep going and do more.
I don’t think anyone should experience a life of toil. I’ve done that myself. I’ve watched family do it. At the end of a long day of writing, I feel a lot like my mom after a day of soaping. I’m mentally fried, but sometimes so energized by the experience that I can’t sleep. I’m not worried. I’m not angry. My mind is just still running and trying to solve problems. Sometimes I take notes on my phone as I lie awake in bed just so I can get my brain to shut up. Sometimes I have a drink to slow my brain down and disconnect it from figuring out the next puzzle, the next catchy phrase, the next character quirk or throwaway dialog.
Drinking is a slippery slope and has claimed more talented writers than the meat grinder of Disney, Time-Warner, or any corporation combined. So, I don’t do it very often. Not anymore. Especially if I can’t ride out the absolute rush of making progress on a project. I guess I don’t want to feel numb when the words are working together right. I had more of a reason to drink when I was answering phones for tech support all those years ago. Or hand-holding needy professors who didn’t like dusty chalkboards in their rooms.
I don’t think you have to be miserable to work.
I think what we could have learned from the pandemic is that people can be just as productive in the comfort of their own homes, doing their jobs remotely, instead of engaging in office politics, having a supervisor staring down the back of their neck all day, or insipid, meaningless pizza parties used to boost morale and distract people from the fact that a boss who doesn’t even know what the people working under them do is making a degree of magnitude more money than they are. But most places called employees back. They needed to see that beaten look on their faces as they filed into work and slouched at their desks, exchanging the little time they have left in this world for money they will never see much less be able to spend.
My retirement. My pension. My title. My God, have we come so far to sell ourselves so cheaply? I’m glad the French are rioting. I just wish we would do the same here. Instead we have a culture of people proud to work themselves to death, being miserable the whole way. Because anybody who finds joy or meaning in what they do is a slacker and isn’t pulling their weight.
I’d rather do something that brought me joy than fall into that trap ever again.