Writing For Your Life

I’m taking a break from checking student essays (and other personal and professional activities, including [but not limited to] – washing the dishes from yesterday’s dinner, formatting response sheets, and preparing for student presentations and workshops tomorrow) because I was really bothered by a tweet that came across my timeline earlier today. And no, it’s not about how terrible the government is (and it is terrible, but more qualified people have been writing about it and you should be reading those) or how awful politicians are (and again, they are pretty awful these days, but again, more qualified people have been writing about it and you should be reading those) or how it feels like we might be living in the end times. Since I am not an expert, I do not think that I can weigh in on these discussions online – in private, in person, sure – but writing online carries a kind of responsibility that I’d like to think more quietly about.

HOWEVER. The tweet in question bothered me so much, and I feel that I have some experience in the situation this person is tweeting about, that I felt compelled to respond to it. I don’t know who this person is, and I don’t know what their situation is all about, but as a teacher and a writer, I feel like I must respond to it. Here’s the tweet in question:

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(If the image doesn’t load properly, here’s what it says: “how do you kill an art student’s drive for passion? transform the very thing that they love doing so much into an academic requirement and make them prioritize their deadlines and grades so much that they get pressured by the curriculum until they graduate with nothing left.” I’ve blurred out the Twitter handle and the names of my students who liked it in the first place – which was how I found it popping up on my feed.)

I want to break it down into three component parts: the idea of passion, the idea of “studying” your passion, and the idea of “pressure” being exerted that one has “nothing left.”

First of all, here’s the thing about passion: it doesn’t guarantee that you will be good at what you do if you are simply passionate about it. Passion goes hand it hand with discipline and hard work and improving yourself. Cal Newport has this great essay about how the advice “follow your passion” is incredibly problematic and sets up a young person for failure simply because passion develops over time and experience – something that college students are just starting to have. Having a passion is great – it sets you on fire and makes you desire to do something, to take action. This is perhaps one of the most important things that you need in your toolbox as a student – in whatever course of study. I’ve seen time and again how passion drives students to excel, to take on challenges head on, to want to succeed despite the roadblocks placed in their path. But I’ve also seen students defeated by their passions – by wanting something so bad right now that they cannot find the time or patience to work on it, bit by bit, and sometimes even refuse to risk something simply because they’re afraid that their passion might not be strong enough. (And here’s the thing: sometimes, it’s really not.)

For instance: I am incredibly passionate about musical theater. I love musical theater, Love, love, love musical theater with a passion that would probably light Lin-Manuel Miranda on fire. But I can’t carry a tune. In fact, my husband has repeatedly confused my singing with spoken word poetry. Also, I cannot act to save my life. In fact, acting might hasten my death. I trip over my own feet, so dancing is out of the window. Am I passionate about musical theater? Heck yes. Will I ever be an actress on a stage? God forbid, never. Have I tried? Of course – I’ve done theater workshops and music classes and whatever you have. But I am simply not good enough. And that’s okay.

Second, there is a reason why you can study your passion (whether you love building things, coding things, writing about things, painting things… whatever it is you are interested about). It’s because there are people who have practiced this passion long enough that they mastered the craft and have decided to codify it so that it becomes easier for the next generation. And guess what? That generation is you. You are benefitting from decades (or even centuries) of thought and research and practice by being able to learn about it from the comforts of the classroom. (Unless your classroom is at the fifth floor of the CAL Building, in which case, you will not only learn new things but you will also develop strong thigh muscles after a semester.) You are not being asked to reinvent the wheel. The academic requirement is there to provide you with scaffolding and a framework so you can experiment on things within a controlled environment. You (hopefully) have a teacher who is guiding you as you go through that experience. If there is a grade (and there most probably is), then know that it is just a numerical equivalent of the quality of work you’ve turned in for the semester. It does not represent you as a person. (Because you contain multitudes, as the poets say.)

And you know, the deadlines don’t go away just because you’re not in school anymore. In my case, if you want to continue writing and being published, then you’re always running after a deadline – for a workshop, for an anthology, for a book project, for a chance to speak or to listen or to contribute your knowledge and experience. You will constantly be asked to talk about your work, to listen to (hopefully constructive, but sometimes, not really) criticism, and to figure out ways of constantly upgrading yourself and your craft. This is why some people have board exams to take, or licensure exams to pass, or skill sets to gain even though they are already professionals. We never stop having to meet deadlines.

And honestly, deadlines are important (even though, yes, we will miss a number of deadlines once in a while). It forces you to be disciplined in terms of your writing. It makes you be organized and on top of your shit. It forces you to work even though you want to just watch YouTube videos or play The Sims. (This is me; the example is me.) Look, most writers who write successfully and have long-term careers as writers have built up their habits over the years. Again, it’s not just about passion, it’s also about putting in the work to make it more than just your passion. And if you don’t want to put in the work, then maybe you need to re-think your choices.

[For instance, here is an infographic about productive routines by creative people; here’s another article about how famous thinkers and creators structured their schedules. Imagine what people could do if they used Google Calendar and a to-do list!]

Look: we’ve all been there. That point where we want to throw in the towel and imagine wanting another life. An “easier” life. There have been so many times in the last ten or so years where I just asked myself, “What am I doing?” I’ve thought about not writing anymore. I’ve complained to my husband so many times, “Why the heck did I want to be a writer?” that he can probably make a drinking game out of it. Similarly, I’ve questioned the reasons why I entered the academe. I’ve contemplated quitting teaching so many times when I first started, simply because teaching is HARD. It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I struggle with these basic choices every day simply because I have to choose to do what I love doing: to teach, to write. I need to choose it, because otherwise, I’ll just be surrendering to the void.

And honestly, studying writing and literature was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It’s opened up so many doors for me, and provided me with so many opportunities that I’ll never stop being grateful for. I played to my strengths – obviously the fact that I can string together a coherent sentence is one; reading really fast is another – and allowed myself to flex new muscles that I didn’t know I had. I learned from people who were better than me. (I learned that there will always be someone better than me, and that’s okay as well. It should never stop me from wanting to be better.) I learned that my grades did not define me – the creative writing class where I received my lowest grade is incidentally a class I am teaching now – and that what is important is what I did during that class. I experimented, I played around, I made a ton of mistakes. I tried to get into workshops and failed. I tried to get into workshops and succeeded. I got rejected and published and rejected again. I learned how to hustle, even as a student, because I knew that a lot of the things I wanted to learn was not in the classroom. Did I do a lot of stupid shit in college, and beyond? Yes. Did I learn from them? Oh, yes.

And finally, the idea that you’ll run out of some magical juice that fuels your passion is really problematic because you’re assuming that you have a finite amount of that passion to give. But here’s the thing about the human imagination: it is a perpetual motion machine. You just need to learn how to grease the wheels a little bit, to smoothen the rough edges. This is where learning how to have a self-care routine comes in. Yes, there will be times when you will be so exhausted and your brain is just fucking done, and all you want to do is sleep for a thousand million years. And that’s okay. You need to sleep. (Stephen King even talks about “creative sleep” as a way to kick-start your brain into creating.) You need to find the reset button for your imagination. I know people who need to move geographically in order to reset (they travel, or attend talks, or go to museums, or just take a walk – writers love walking). I know people who read things that are unrelated to what they are reading. Some people pick up a new way of expressing themselves – one where the stakes are low or there is minimal impact. Other people literally veg out and marathon Stranger Things because their minds need to focus on other things. Some people exercise. Some people throw themselves into social activities – anything that connects them to other warm bodies. Whatever it is, allow yourself to step away and don’t take yourself too seriously. Because it’s okay to take a break – even just 15 minutes.

Will you still be anxious/depressed/exhausted even after all of these things? Yes, because those are all very human reactions to things that are happening inside your head and things that are happening beyond your control. Sometimes, you will have an asshole teacher or classmates or school administration. Sometimes, you will have groupmates who will bail on you and leave you to do all the work while wanting to still be acknowledged. Sometimes, you will not have an atmosphere conducive to working on your passion. Sometimes, you will prefer to sleep or step away or wring your hands and wonder if what you’re doing even makes sense. But that’s okay because that gives you time to re-assess, to re-consider, and maybe even go in a different direction.

And sometimes, you just need to be willing to step into the unknown, and hope that you make it through to the other side in one piece. And to be honest, sometimes that’s the most exciting feeling of all, and one that you never want to run out of.

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