What we write about when we write think pieces about doing what we love

I’ve been in a running dialogue with a friend and fellow writer about articles on the topic of doing what you love. Articles talking about how to stoke your passion, about questioning whether you’re actually doing what you love, and so on. There are a lot of people writing a lot of words about doing what you love and knowing what that is.

And it gets me thinking back to a line from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated.

“I am doing something I hate for you. This is what it means to be in love.”

Love is not synonymous with joy.

Doing what you love does not mean living in a state of bliss. Neither does it mean constant suffering for your craft. Fetishizing some ideal or imagined state of being gets in the way of The Work and getting The Work done.

You make compromises for love. You prioritize for love. You sacrifice for love. Love is messy and imperfect.

So if you ever doubt if what you’re doing is something you love, look at what you’ve set aside for it. Look at the list of things that you said no to in order to say yes to this.

Love is the repetition of yes.

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Treading Lightly

When my wife and I first brought our baby home, Sprout slept in a pack & play next to our bed. It helped us to respond quickly to her needs, but it created a problem: We needed to be quieter in order to avoid waking her.

After a few nights of hearing the Mission: Impossible theme in my head every time I tried to slip under the covers, the realization hit that there was more to it than stealth. We started looking at the room differently. There was a need to rearrange where things were in order to make it easier to take care of the necessary tasks. It became more important to maintain the order in that space than before. Anything left on the ground could create noise or injury to the person trying not to make noise.

You start to look at your actions differently. Being quiet doesn’t involve tensing up and tip-toeing the way that every cartoon ever would have you believe. You limit how much you move. You tone down how much force you put into actions. You set things down gently instead of tossing (which also helps to maintain the space). Your actions begin to feel lighter.

You even think about your actions differently. It may start as “I have to be quiet while I get into bed, or else this baby is going to hear me, wake up, and never go back to sleep until the next Presidential election, and I will rip all my hair out long before then!” but if you keep that up, you will wake the baby. And you will be annoyed. And it will be harder to focus on getting the baby back to sleep.

But with practice, you can hit that sweet spot where you’re even treading lightly in your mind. “I need to pull the covers back.” “I need to sit down on the bed.” “I need to shift my weight to slide under the covers.” Simple actions, pushing toward the goal, but detached from the prediction of failure. Even your mind is using less effort. Walking softly.

Drop a rock in a stream. The water doesn’t stop, look at the rock, swear under its breath, and evaporate. It flows around. That rock can be seen as an obstruction to the natural flow of the water, or it can be seen as the cause of a new route. Either way, the water keeps flowing. The trick is in learning to see the difference.

Simple Fluid Portable Musical

If I had my druthers, I would have a writing shed. Some windows, a power outlet for my laptop and some speakers, and a desk wide enough to spread out some notebooks and a coffee mug. A wall for a cork board and dry erase board. Maybe even a second outlet for a space heater.

There have been lots of different ways I’ve defined the ideal writing space. There were a string of coffee shops I thought were ideal back when I was living in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area where I did a lot of work. Sometimes a library would be my ideal spot to sit and attack the keyboard. I’ve even made efforts to make whatever desk space I have where I live meet some kind of ideal conception of what it is that I want to make it feel like The Happiest, Most Productive Writing Space On The Planet.

But there’s only so much you can really control. For me, the days of having wide open hours for work are gone (at least for a while). It’s an any port in a storm mentality, where the dining table is as good as a desk, or the phone needs to be as good as a laptop. Five minutes by itself needs to be as useful as five minutes in a full hour of work.

While listening to a podcast on the Four Noble Truths, the speaker mentioned how there is a lot of discussion from the Buddha on the cause of suffering, but the speaker is often asked why Buddha didn’t also explain the cause of happiness. He responds:

When there is a cause, your happiness… is dependent on the cause being there. […] and to feel relaxed and at home, it’s best for there not to be a condition that’s required. Because then you’re able to bring your happiness, your peace into any situation. It’s portable.

-Gil Fronsdal

It reminded me of this quote which puts it another way:

Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.

-C.S. Lewis

It’s not always possible or helpful to remove all conditions when you’re undertaking a task like writing. For example, writing without a writing implement. However, the principle is the same: attach your writing space and your process to as few conditions as possible. Be fluid. If you need an anchor, find one that’s easily portable, like music.

I’ve always worked while listening to music. It’s a way to create a writing space anywhere you have access to headphones. And if you make music as portable as possible (no streams, so lack of internet doesn’t interfere), it’s something always available to you.

Maybe it’s a certain song or album that puts you in the headspace for a project. A well-curated playlist that, or a shuffled selection of familiar favorites. The music can be that small luxury that helps keep your focus off the larger, frequently unnecessary desires that may feel important to your workspace or Your Process.

What is truly essential to you getting the work done? What are the things that you tell yourself are necessary, and how many of them can you go without? There is value in ritual, and to actions that create a transition from non-work to work time, but ask yourself: What’s the most portable version?

Do you have the time?

Years ago, when I was still using a dumb phone, I stopped wearing my watch. It was a decision to use the clock on my phone and not have two things on my person for the same task.

The watch was left on my desk. Then a series of drawers. By the time I moved to Boston, it hadn’t seen the light of day for over a year. Being a watch with a solar battery, that lead to it having some issues. But it didn’t matter to me. I’ve gone through three cell phones since I stopped wearing the watch, and the upgrade to an iPhone hadn’t changed the belief that if I have something in my pocket that can tell the time, why do I need something on my wrist that only tells the time?

My wife sent my watch to be repaired for my birthday this year. I had almost forgotten about it. She told me that it was a nice watch and we should see if it could be fixed.

The thing that I hadn’t counted on was how different things had become since I first made the decision to stop wearing a watch. Now, my phone isn’t just a clock, phone, and source of text messages. It’s a portal to Twitter, Facebook, Tiny Wings, Instapaper, and the entire flipping internet. Checking the time easily becomes checking seven other things.

But you’ve probably heard that before. It’s trendy to give up on smart phones, or to nerf some of their features so that you don’t distract yourself. But that doesn’t say why I’m changing my mind about wearing my watch.

When I check the time on my phone, it’s a static digital readout of the hours and minutes of the day. It tells me that I am at one particular moment in time, and this is how I should orient my thinking.

When I look at the watch, I get the same information about what time it is, but I also see the second hand. I see motion. I see time moving forward, and I remember that I should be moving with it.

It is a nice watch.

If you’re going to shoot, shoot.

I recently read a post from Mike Cane’s xBlog that re-posted an essay from 1922 titled “Why I Quit Being So Accomodating.” The essay included the following section:

“Surely, if life means anything at all, it means that each of us is entrusted with a certain irreplaceable fund of hours and weeks and years. To let anybody and everybody fritter that fund away is as if the trustee of an estate were to deposit the estate’s funds in a bank and issue check books to whoever applied.”

The tl;dr version of the article: Your time is precious and you should be selective to whom you offer it to, as you will never get this time back. Those who freely give away their time at the expense of their work do not respect their time and thus do not have their time respected by others.

There’s some generally solid, applicable advice in this column from almost a century ago, but there’s a specific aspect of this that is worth looking at for anybody who wants to call themself a writer, and what it means to make that distinction.

At the basic level, a writer is not about the external validation of their work (sold screenplays, published novels, paycheck, awards, etc.), but about the consistent effort to produce work. Do you sit down and put words together regularly? Are you working toward improving the quality of what you write? Great! That’s being a writer.

Cultivating the practice of writing requires effort and intention. Like the line from The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, “If you want to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.” Writers make the time to write, they don’t just talk about it. They do the work.

And sometimes it’s frustrating. A factor that keeps people who work hard at their writing from willingly identifying as a writer is thinking that all they write is crap. There’s a quote from Brian Eno I keep up in my workspace: “The point about working is not to produce great stuff all the time, but to remain ready for when you can.”

Take your time seriously. Put the words on the page, even if they suck. Keep doing it, and they’ll suck less. They might even become good. But you can’t make it better until you’ve made it, and you can’t make it until you make the time.