The real tragedy of modernity is not that we become our work, our identities bound up in our professions. It’s that the professions we have are so lame.
In today’s vaunted knowledge economy, these jobs are boring, nonproductive. Sure, there’s a lot of work being done. We are busy. But at the end of the day, it’s a lot of mental effort signifying nothing. Empty air. Bits and bytes of code or numbers shifted on a spreadsheet. Typos found on some piece of paperwork that isn’t even real paper. Shuffling the files via mouse. What have you created?
Give me the family trade of blacksmithing, or cobbling, or hell, even farming. Yardwork! A medieval (or modern-day) priest creates the friggin’ Eucharist at the end of his typical day of work. What have you done, desk jockey?
The thing us, we men—and I’m talking about men because, being a man, it’s a frame of reference I’m comfortable universalizing—we like to be productive. Doing stuff is in our blood. You might say it’s our lifeblood. If we feel useless, we die. Too many men actually croak shortly upon retirement. We can’t “just relax” like our wives say. No man really wants to shuffle around in slacks and bright white sneakers while collecting a pension. It’s not our nature. We might get old, but until our souls leave our bodies, our bodies want to make.
So it’s a funny thing that so many of us spend time making things that just don’t matter. At least, not on a deeper level.
The amazing thing is, whether day job or hobby, we have this inborn drive to do. If you’re going to show up to perform a task, it just feels wrong to half-ass it. Even on vacation, as I recently took, you think about your day job, even plan on doing some work so you’re not swamped when you return, end up not doing work on vacation and get swamped anyway, and spend nights up late just trying to catch up.
Imagine if we had this level of devotion for things that we actually enjoyed to do.
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In addition to having a cool name, Cyril Northcote Parkinson articulated the truism that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” I can relate, brother. Boy, can I relate.
Just recently, I had a project at work with a deadline known to my team and me months in advance. I devised a schedule with the intention for us to complete this task before the deadline so we’d have some days to fine-tune and tweak things once the hard part was done. We were going to defy Mr. Parkinson’s law.
The funny thing is that we stuck to our schedule, and yet like the laws of gravity, thermodynamics, and other inescapable realities of our physical world, the work . . . expanded. And we got things in just in time, reaching the finish line by a nose. Luckily, being Greek, I have a nose that stretched over the finish line just enough for us to meet our goal.
Actually, we didn’t meet the goal. The goal was to avoid this situation. And yet . . .
. . . and yet, I face this reality with all of my projects. I did not publish a book during calendar year 2021. After releasing A Traitor to Dreamsin 2018, The Last Ancestor in 2019, and two books in 2020, Dreamers & Misfits and The Second Sojourn, 2021 was something of a dead zone for me.
I had a book written by September 2021, The Final Home, the concluding volume in the trilogy started by The Last Ancestor and The Second Sojourn. I also had all of the stories necessary for my Pulp Rock anthology, including my own, in hand in 2021 as well. But books need to be edited, you know? First by me, and then by an editor, and then by me, again. And then maybe by me, again. And they have to be formatted. And the artwork has to be coordinated. And the proofs have to be examined for quality. And then there are beta readers, and typo checks . . . it’s an awful lot of work.
I managed to get Pulp Rock published in February of 2022. It’s now June and I’m still working on going through my editor’s notes for The Final Home and my goal of publication by summer seems like a distant dream. Maybe it’ll be out this year. Maybe not. Who knows?
There are writers far more disciplined than me who keep to schedules and daily word counts. I have been able to keep schedules for some of my own books—the first two, in fact. But then I do something crazy like try to write two books at once, or decide to get my friends to put together stories for an anthology while I’m still working on another manuscript. I also write a blog, which takes time. And then I start writing another book . . . forget about the other manuscripts I wrote in between the books I published that I haven’t touched for far too long but want to get to market.
Welcome to Hell, right?
* * *
My reading time is similarly undisciplined, but I did manage to finish “Bad” Billy Pratt’s essay collection called Welcome to Hell.
Billy (not his real name) is an interesting cat with a unique, albeit depressing, perspective on the modern world, particularly that of dating. I’ve been married since 2010, so the dating world is mercifully a foreign country to me. It was stressful enough for me in the days before social media and dating apps really took off, and I was a guy who dated from a young age with the sole purpose not of having fun and making notches in my belt but of getting married and starting a family. So yes, I’m pretty different from Billy. I still enjoyed his book.
And work really isn’t hell, not at least how Billy characterizes it:
Modernity is Hell. It’s a sentiment shared by many people, even if they aren’t honest enough to admit it. But what is Hell? Hell is the impermanence of identity, the death of authenticity, the absence of love. It’s the unsettling nothing you feel as you amble to work and back, numbingly consuming pop culture pleasures, sleepwalking your way through dead-end sexual encounters. Hell is the void, the death of God, the blurring of reality and fantasy, your own consciousness lost in the stew.
And that’s just from the back of the book! That’s not exactly the Christian conception of Hell. Or maybe it is, if you don’t get out of that world.
After reading his book, I truly with Billy all the best. May he find the love, the permanence, the authenticity he so clearly desires! May we all!
But Billy has other poignant insights into the nature of writing. “A good writer,” he says, “is tasked with splitting his veins open with a razor blade and covering his keyboard in blood.” Metaphorically, of course. Like when Jesus said to remove an offending limb or even an eye of it causes you to sin. It’s a parable not to be taken literally. Or maybe it is to be taken literally. But who’s going to clean the keyboard?
Billy has a chapter near the end of the book called “Set It and Forget It.” It is all about the desire, the drive to be productive at that which you truly love, which gives you your identity. In Billy’s case, and I guess in mine now, it’s writing.
People who don’t that drive don’t understand why you put all of this time and effort into doing something you in all likelihood won’t ever make a living doing. It’s just a hobby, right? But this hobby gives you purpose in the Hell Billy characterizes. All the time you don’t spend writing, or reading, gnaws at you. Time is wasting. You want to finish your day job stuff so you can get to the real work of your life.
This used to be music for me. I felt a sense of urgency. Why was I watching TV or playing a video game or hanging out with friends when I had to practice and rehearse and write? People tend to think you’re crazy, but that’s only because they don’t understand.
That’s a great line in H. Beam Piper’s Space Viking. Who said reading fiction was a frivolous distraction? Here’s another great line I’ll paraphrase from John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire: The only way to accomplish anything is to get obsessed and stay obsessed.
And so we make our plans, the best laid plans, and we all know what Robert Burns said about those. They often expand to fill, or blow past, the time allotted, no matter the crazy, obsessive schedule you strive to keep.
But you know what? That’s how you keep Hell at bay.