It’s a nice thought, but, like a lot of the little maps that we like to draw for our lives, it’s also a bit naive.
Aside from the obvious administrative stuff that goes along with making a living, there is the fact that following this path turns what you love into work. Your passion becomes your obligation. I love painting murals. Years ago, before the nerve damage that now limits me as an artist, I would paint for 8-14 hours a day. I could transform a child’s room into a fairy-tale kingdom, white walls into stone. It was instant gratification: with every stroke of the brush, the space came closer to the vision. But, after three or four days on the same job, you stop feeling like an artist and start feeling like a day laborer. It was a learned skill, like fixing a car or plumbing a house. You know how to do it, you take pride in your work, but after a point, it’s only muscle memory. Would I have traded it for any other career? Probably not, if injury didn’t force that. But did I work a day in my life? Oh, yes. Oh yes, I did.
There’s something inherently playful in art making. You are constantly experimenting, seeing what will happen if…? Writing is a similar, although more cerebral, kind of quiet magic. Teaching… oh teaching! The energy that comes out of solving problems, answering questions, and redirecting behavior on the spot is incredible. But when one or more of these is my job, there is a certain standard, a certain obligation, that removes some of my childlike right to failure. When something is fun, you don’t really worry about the results. It is great fun to develop new techniques. Even if it takes five years to develop one that does what you want, that’s ok when you’re just playing. But if you have a mural job tomorrow, you’d better know what you’re doing.
For years I have been learning that once I switch a pursuit from casual enjoyment to a career path, I have to find new things to enjoy. It does not mean I stop loving my work. It means it is my work, and so I must find other ways to play. This isn’t always easy. I am an introvert, so while I care deeply for people, going out all the time can drain me. Left to myself, it’s easy to use my time alone to do my work instead of finding ways to play. But if I do this for too long, my life grinds to a halt. The work I love can take me over and own me if I let it become my job. Then, every move and every minute is under obligation.
When I sense this is happening, I will pick up one of my three loves–one that I am not trying to make my living out of–and play for a while. Yes, I’m the geek who will write a lesson plan, or a book, if my job is to paint. These three things have created a balance for me most of my life, when I have used them well.
Now… I am at the very beginning of letting my writing become my work. Today it turned the corner. Today I hit the hired-hand mentality. So I thought maybe I should paint. But that was too true. I should paint. I should do this because I have my first art show in years coming up in a month and need to get some work done. Nothing playful there on a day like today. Teaching? I am a teaching assistant as I go through school myself.
I felt completely boxed in by the musts.
For a while this immobilized me. I skulked about the house, sat here, moped there.
Finally, I decided to do some gardening. I went to Home Depot and bought a bunch of plants: shrubs and herbs and a topiary, and got home after dark. I don’t have the strength to plant more than one or two a day. This means I can get a week or two of good times out of them. And then there will be the watering and the pruning. Lots of opportunities to do something creative and quiet.
I feel a little sorry for these plants. As much as I will enjoy them, they are the one thing that I will be doing that is not an obligation. They may make it through the year. But they may not. I have gardened before with varrying success. I enjoy it enough that I will probably have an increasingly beautiful yard over the next several months. But there is an inherent selfishness to this: they are the one place in my life where I am allowed to fail. Of course, I may fail at anything at any time because I am human. But with the plants, I am allowed to let myself fail, and then to smile, forgive myself, and try again.