When I was a little girl and started visiting my friends’ houses, I remember being blown away by the fact that not every family did things the way my family did. It was a life-transforming revelation to me. Suddenly my world – which had never before seemed limiting – became HUGE, as I realized that there were literally endless possibilities for living one’s life. Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated by the ways that other people live. That fascination is the reason I read so much, and so widely – because I want to discover my options.
I’m especially fascinated by other people’s work habits. One of my favorite blogs is From the Desk of… because it’s a voyeuristic look at writers’ and artists’ creative spaces. I also used to buy all those magazines featuring artists’ and crafters’ studios, for the same reason. I thought, If I can have a peek inside their workspaces, maybe I can begin to unravel how they do what they do. And maybe there’s some gold there for me.
Apart from assignments for school, I didn’t start writing regularly until my late 20s, when I first began seeking out work as a freelance writer. I loved being published (and being paid for my work!), but I found writing for a deadline agonizing. Most of my articles involved interviews with musicians and artists (which was awesome!), but that meant endless hours transcribing interview tapes. I hated transcribing. I also hated being tied to a word count, because that meant making decisions about what to include, and what to leave out. (In retrospect, this was a blessing. It made me a really good editor – quick to discern what’s essential, and what’s superfluous.) I never had a huge problem with procrastination – I always made my deadlines – but I did pull two or three near-all-nighters in order to submit a story on time, usually because the perfectionist in me fretted endlessly over word choice and word order.
Discovering blogging in the fall of 2006 was another revelation to me. For the first time ever, I got to write exactly what I wanted to write, and then see it immediately published. My writing exploded, and I created dozens of blogs as I came up with new ideas for subjects that I wanted to write about. (Most of these didn’t live to see the light of day, mercifully.)
Then I began working in the business and nonprofit sectors, and adapted my skills for proposal writing and technical writing. I still write every day for my paid job, and I appreciate this experience because it’s taught me to be a workhorse. The subject matter may not always be scintillating, but I’ve learned how to write when I’m not inspired, or don’t feel like writing. And I’ve learned that “perfect is the enemy of done.” I’ve learned to release the work to the world, and move on to the next project. I’ve acquired grit and stick-to-it-iveness and discipline. I’ve learned how to be fast and succinct. I’ve gained facility.
Since returning to regular blogging nearly a year ago, though, I’ve been experimenting with my extracurricular creative habits. I know how to be a writing drudge, but is that all there is? I hope not. I’m still looking for something deeper. I have a sense that there’s more to writing than just showing up at the screen. (Any blogger using WordPress will recognize the photo at the beginning of this post… and will probably also know the agony of showing up at that blank screen every time they write.)
I’ve read some amazing books in the last five months, including three by Steven Pressfield that continue to inspire me to explore what’s possible as a writer. The War of Art is about battling resistance to creative work. Do the Work is a step-by-step coaching session through a creative project. And his latest book, Turning Pro, is about crossing the mine field of addictive and diversionary behaviors that incapacitate the artist. It was humbling for me to read this book, because in it I recognized many parts of myself that I’m not proud of. I also recognized that I’ve spent most of my adult life engaged in “shadow careers.”
Sometimes, when we’re terrified of embracing our true calling, we’ll pursue a shadow calling instead. That shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar, its contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us.
Are you pursuing a shadow career?
Are you getting your Ph.D. in Elizabethan studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies that you know you have inside you? Are you living the drugs-and-booze half of the musician’s life, without actually writing the music? Are you working in a support capacity for an innovator because you’re afraid to risk becoming an innovator yourself?
If you’re dissatisfied with your current life, ask yourself what your current life is a metaphor for.
That metaphor will point you toward your true calling.
There’s no running away from that realization. I know what my calling is. And I know what I need to do. And so I’ll continue to show up, every day, in my free time. And write. And write some more…