Holding a cup and overfilling it
Cannot be as good as stopping short
Pounding a blade and sharpening it
Cannot be kept for long
Gold and jade fill up the room
No one is able to protect them
Wealth and position bring arrogance
And leave disasters upon oneself
When achievement is completed, fame is attained
This is the Tao of Heaven
– Chapter 9, The Tao Te Ching, translation by Derek Lin
Tag Archives: Philosophy
Writing seriously means nursing enormous egotism, believing that your inner life is worthy of concrete expression, worthy of sharing. The outside world wants to constantly remind you that you are nothing but a small, failed, decaying byproduct of its grand mulching system. But bringing forth what’s inside you gives independent life to something that never before existed outside your mind, something that cannot be immediately quantified, digested, and mulched. Therefore, writing is subversive. Writing is Occupy Consciousness. Writing is black magic. It’s an external frame of reference, a constellation of ideas, a place outside the compost heap. And we can go there together.
When I was in graduate school (for 12 years altogether–what was I thinking?), I had a rigid uncompromising attitude toward my own deadlines. I had to meet them, even if it meant allowing the rest of my life to collapse.
Not surprisingly, putting myself in this do-or-die frame of mind often resulted in exactly that: my physical and emotional health would suffer. I would have fulfilled my responsibilities and I was often extremely successful in those narrowly defined areas, but I would feel cheated because everything else would be wrecked. I’d have to begin rebuilding my life after every major work project. It was exhausting.
Now, I’ve learned to make time. I have more deadlines than ever, but I take an attitude of mastery instead of servitude by saying, “Sure, I’ll get to it when I get to it.” I’ve found that this nearly always makes me more efficient. By giving myself permission to remain whole–a whole person–I am no longer a slave to some external timetable.
On those rare occasions when my work is late or when unforeseen complications lead to a less-than-desired outcome, I’ve learned to say, “So be it; I’m human; I’ll fix it now and do better next time.” Sometimes, this means comping work, spending extra time to make things right, or taking some other loss. But we might just call that the price of sustained excellence. It’s easy to operate at the top of one’s ability every now and then. It takes moderation and self-control to stay in that state of optimal performance long term. It takes a sense of balance and the maturity to recognize the value of personal wellness.
This was a hard lesson to learn, since I am “up in my head” most of the time, planning and scheming. I also have an over-inflated sense of responsibility linked to the need for me to see myself as a high-functioning player in every situation. I grew a lot when I admitted to myself that I had these Type-A traits.
Now I breathe, relax, and make my demons work for me instead of being tortured by them. I think, when we accept the need for balance, we’re accepting life instead of the deadening supposition that our worth is defined only by what we produce in certain narrow categories.
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!