Recently, someone wrote to me wanting to know how I could support myself doing what I do. It was a legitimate and sincere question that nevertheless had undertones of skepticism. The writing life? Really? Just admit you’re flipping burgers in the back of some cantina, why don’t you. And my answer was that I really am doing this the way I say I am. It’s not impossible—hard sometimes, but never impossible. The bottom line is that I’m doing exactly what I want to do in life.
So why the incredulity? Why the outrage? I think it stems from the ingrained assumption that leading a responsible, hard-working life is at odds with fun and satisfaction. When I worked in law, my supervising attorney used to say, “Sleep is for the weak” and “If you’re smiling, you’re not working hard enough.” I hated that and I suspect that such traditional attitudes about work and life begin with western religious assumptions about what we’re here to do and where we’re headed—assumptions many of us would rather do without. It’s also hard not to see a telling interface between this aspect of conformist culture and consumerism.
Then again, I firmly believe that once we start making small decisions about what we want, once we start saying no to the bullying mechanisms of conformist culture (see Office Space for a great hilarious treatment of this), the way we see the world begins to change. Things we thought were dull and boring begin to reveal hidden dimensions. Fears evaporate. It’s like learning to swim: at first, we sank like stones but then we learned to see the water differently and we were able to do something amazing: float weightlessly. Sure, I love college teaching, but I love it primarily as something fascinating in itself, not as a support system or security blanket. I don’t have any fear of the non-academic life. I’m still a writer no matter where I am.
Moreover, I find it interesting that we are encouraged to assume that there is a fundamental disconnection between the mundane and the extraordinary in our everyday lives. Why is this? And why do we support belief systems dedicated to showing us how monotonous and empty our lives can be?
As someone who has spent a good amount of time in academia as well as making a living doing somewhat unconventional self-directed things—freelance writing, teaching fiction writing online, editing, even surviving for a while in college as a professional tarot card reader—I’ve come to recognize the inherent strangeness and fluidity of so-called normal life.
As the linguist, Patrick Dunn, has written, we might legitimately see the world “not as a constant interaction of immutable laws—although often and in may ways it is—but as an ever-changing interaction of arbitrary and constantly shifting symbols.” Realizing that we have a considerable degree of semantic control over our lived experience should make us pause and ask why we are living the life we’re living. Shouldn’t it?
Thinking about this has opened a lot of doors for me, doors of perception, doors of experience. When I ask what is the meaning of life? I only hear the echo of my own voice. And I used to think that this meant life was essentially meaningless. But I don’t think that anymore. Now I suspect that looking outside myself for an answer is tantamount to expecting a fixed meaning from some immutable hierarchy of values. All cosmological assumptions serve power in some way and very few of them are in place to empower or enlighten the individual.
Now I tend to agree with Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.” The echo that comes back is the answer: the meaning of life is in the act of interpreting it. And so I think again about everyday life, about the experience of being alive in a dance of symbols and interlocking value systems. It’s incredibly strange to see life this way—to drop the ancient fictions associated with fixed categorical thinking and instead see experience as a matter of Will to Meaning, of interpretation.
After I sent a response along these lines to the person who asked me whether I was really, truly, honestly living the writing life, she followed up with: “But doesn’t it bother you that you’re not famous yet?”
All the dogs in my neighborhood know me as that guy with the cookies in his pocket. When the balance of my life is behind me, what will I care about: that my name wasn’t a household word or that I was able to say, life means THIS!