Ever since I finished my last book The Distraction Addiction, I’ve been thinking about the economics of creative work, and the whole question of how you can do creative work in an increasingly unstable and uncertain economy. One reason I’m interested in issues of rest and creativity is that it seems to me that most writers, artists, and other creative types have to figure out how to do their work while holding down jobs that pay the bills.
A few people manage to make a living writing full-time, but for most of us, from an economic point of view writing books is like owning a yacht: you might love it, but you need a way to pay for it. Maybe after decades of a dual existence as a consultant and scholar, I’m accustomed to the idea of maintaining two lives. And even though my last book won a phenomenal advance (thanks entirely to my agent) and got great reviews (thanks largely to my editor), there’s no guarantee that the next book will get a good advance, or any advance at all; unless you’re J. K. Rowling, you don’t live in a world that works that way. (If you want to read an excellent piece about how first book success can lead to dreams of chucking it all and living off your typewriter, and the hard fall to earth that follows, check out Emily Gould’s great essay in Medium about the ups and downs of writing the second book.)
So part of what I’m trying to do in exploring deliberate rest is avoiding the kind of circumstance described in David Sobel’s piece in Salon:
Forty-two and single, I was jumping without a net into the potential person I was meant to be. I’d watched Larry Smith’s famous TED Talk about following one’s passion, and enrolled in an advertising portfolio class. I was determined to rebrand myself as a digital copywriter.
Despite my double-take on “digital copyrighter”— this is a dream job?— I kept going, and the payoff is an essay about the emotional turmoil that comes from leaving a not-so-interesting but decent job to pursue your dream. The problem is, “dream” all too often doesn’t just mean “what you were meant to do,” but “something you think is cool but carries risks no one told you about.” What Sobel found after months of struggle is that “Changing one’s career in a tight economy, without the proper pedigree of internships and connections, was like trying to audition for a famous pop band in midlife without an instrument.”
Lots of people make sacrifices for their craft, or to pursue their creative vision; I admire them. But rather than take the maximalist position of the “follow your dreams” school, maybe we should also try to understand how Anthony Trollope wrote a shelf-full of books while working in the Post Office, or Karel Capek wrote plays (his R.U.R. introduced the word “Robot” to the English language) while working as a journalist and travel writer; or how Wallace Stevens and Charles Ives led creative lives while working in insurance. Maybe there are ways to follow your dreams that don’t involve a high risk of bankruptcy and depression. Perhaps over the long run there’s a nobility in being able to craft the kind of life that Stevens (or John Dos Passos or Frank McCord or Roddy Doyle) made, and we should recognize how they did it and know how to emulate.