I wrote the draft of a poem. In it I ask, “When is it okay to wake me up this way?” I’ll give away the punchline. The piece is about my dog who paws me with her clawed feet, sits on my chest and licks my mouth trying to wake me up so I will let her out. I know, gross, right? The fact that she’s about forty pounds doesn’t help. But it occurred to me that I’ve been waking up with that question even when the dog doesn’t do the deed for me. It’s a question I’m asking my busy brain these days, as I become more and more enmeshed in my work life.
I write for a living. It’s not what you think. I don’t just sit down for four or five hours a day and type out proverbial American novels only to delete them from my hard drive in frustration. It’s worse than that. Like fascists, ideas occupy my gray matter, line up like soldiers, march through my mind as if in an all-important parade. Waving flags and confetti only confuse me, and so I walk through cerebral city streets on a misty day trying to sort it all out. That’s what it’s like to live as a writer, to live like me.
I shouldn’t complain. Writers pine to be paid for their writing, even if only a smidgeon, and I have been blessed to make a career of the craft. But it’s exhausting, awakening to rampant thoughts after outlining all night long without getting a word saved. I live my work, and I’m always dissatisfied with the product. It’s an artistic thing, something worsened by the perfectionist in me. Even now as I write, I judge my words, which thank God, doesn’t prevent me from writing, but certainly slows me down.
When I’m writing for cash, I make less money per hour this way. Then I feel guilty, knowing my business mentors would not understand, or even if they did, would disapprove. The point in any business is to make money, right? Garnering satisfaction is also the goal, but when I’m OCD like this, I’m neither earning money nor reaping happiness.
It’s not my objective to whine here (though I am doing it decently). It’s more my intent to demonstrate how difficult it is to be a writer in a world that demands we earn a living like anyone else. I don’t pretend I am the only one like this in my industry or that professionals in other industries don’t suffer similar problems. Type A personalities tend towards the obsessive, always working out problems and setting goals. If I labored in a different field, I would probably behave in a similar manner, but is that okay? How much is too much before health, family and mind seriously suffer?
Now I’m sitting here looking at my planner. I’ve mapped out neat times during which I will write, fulfilling my obligations to my clients and myself. Yet, I’ve already exceeded the hours I’ve allotted, having brainstormed and outlined all night without anything to show for it except this essay, which is taking up too much time. That it helps clear my head is some consolation, as I can consider this piece an exercise in mental health and can save myself a trip to the therapist. This essay is at least worth as much as a co-pay.
Back to the question, though. When is it okay to expend this much time, this much energy, this much soul on writing or any other work? You tell me.