I caught an interesting snatch of On Point this morning while I was steeping a cup of coffee. The topic was farming—more of the hobbyist variety than the industry—and it got me thinking. Several callers expressed a yearning to farm, to grow crops to consume and sell as the show's guest did. To use their minds and bodies in harmony with the land to cultivate something as fundamental as food, eliminating all the steps that stand between so many of us and our dinners—our car, the store, dozens of trucks and boats and planes and thousands of miles, processing and packaging plants, huge agricultural operations, preservatives, cans and boxes and labels and bags, and on and on.
Perhaps not a universal desire, but a common and understandable one, I'm sure. A tangible labor in this world that's so diluted and digitized and data-driven. I mean what would you rather nurture and consume—a tomato or a spreadsheet? I'm sure there are plenty of people out there with a genuine love of formulae and numbers and other less tangible commodities, but I'm in the tomato camp. I bet most of us are, yet so many choose to produce spreadsheets, nonetheless.
But which would I really rather have as my crop—tomatoes or stories?
For nearly five years before I became a professional writer, I was an in-house graphic designer. My company wrote and edited content for a variety of different publications for the health care industry. I really loved that job, and I suspect I might still be there if the economy hadn't imploded, resulting in my office closing and my house to refusing to sell. I really did love that job, but not the way I love writing. I adored my colleagues and the fact that I was using my degree, and that whenever possible my managers would create opportunities for me to grow. I enjoyed how often we found excuses to stop working at four to drink wine and eat cheese in the lobby, to toast someone's birthday or engagement. Or simply because Sandra wanted to drink. And the design part of the job, I liked that. But I didn't know what it was to love a job until I began writing full-time, and becoming [slightly] successful at it.
The difference, I've come to realize, is twofold. Part of it is the number of steps between me and the consumer of my work. When I worked as a designer, I was one person in a large team, all working to produce, say, a newsletter. Now the second part of that fundamental difference is the product being made itself, and how closely it mirrors what I've got in my heart and head that I want to share with people. Those newsletters created by all of our hands were designed to sell a reader on a hospital or health plan or a lifestyle conducive to the bottom line of an insurance company. A noble enough pursuit, but my pleasure wasn't coming from plucking my heart from my chest and handing it to an eager recipient. My pleasure came from challenges and collaborations and from a much bigger paycheck than I boast these days, but I don't know if I could ever go back.
What I do now feels almost freakishly pure. The stories I write are very me. They're revised and finessed with the advice of critique partners and editors, but with very few exceptions, I'm the one changing the words, and never yet in a way that's made me feel I was being asked to compromise my creation, only to strengthen it. Then a line editor reads through for technical problems, and thank goodness because I gots of lousy grammars, and a designer creates a pretty package and who knows how many people format it and distribute it and tell the world about the finished product. But a very high percentage of that finished product is me. My imagination loaded into paint balls and blasted onto your open palms, be they holding an e-reader or a paperback.
Let me make it clear, I'm not looking to downplay any of the roles of the other people involved in manifesting my wonky stories—on the contrary, I'm trying to profess how grateful I am that somehow, even with all these dedicated individuals that it takes to produce a book, I still feel very un-tampered with. Just me, smeared all over your hands. I'd be lying if I didn't admit it's obscenely satisfying. Especially if readers seem pleased, though I try not to dwell on it if they're not so pleased. I wrote what I wanted to write, and chances are nil that everyone will like it.
All of this has got me thinking about creation as a kind of farming. Cultivating books or songs or paintings or quilts or stand-up routines and presenting them for the entertainment and enjoyment of an audience. Not necessarily better than harvesting apples or timber or shellfish…unless you're the type of person who has that fire in their gut, that need to create lest you boil over or explode, no vent in your pressure cooker.
And among us types who do feel the need produce some type of art (for lack of a better, less lofty word), lest we develop creative constipation, are we all created equal? As a popular fiction writer (who sometimes teeters on the edge of recommended romance conventions despite knowing better) where do I rank? Am I below a literary novelist, unbound by readers' expectations of a given genre? Am I above a ghost writer, donating their thoughtfully arranged words to another's name? Am I anywhere on par with an essayist, journalist, poet, television writer, fan fiction fanatic? Or is the measure of our worth to be found in bestseller rankings or advances or name recognition or the length of our backlist? But of course you can't gauge it so tidily…and why would you want to? Perhaps the closest you can come to a passable ranking system is to ask yourself if you feel more fulfilled than the next writer? More content? But if you're truly content, I have to wonder, why would you even care how you measure up?
Are you a musician? If so, do you play your own compositions on an acoustic guitar you made yourself, on a bar stool for an audience of twenty? Or are you the face and voice (both likely altered and enhanced for maximum profit) behind a multi-platinum pop identity, performing other people's songs and dance routines, selling millions of singles you didn't compose? Is one better than the other? Is purity of personal vision more noble than lucrative, mass-marketed stardom? Which is more successful?
Depends on your definition of success. If it's money and fame and material comforts and security, you'll likely go the pop star route. If it's something in your marrow wriggling to get out and be shared with another soul, one-on-one, money not a consideration, you'll probably opt for the bar stool.
I know I could never in a million years work on Wall Street. Forget the aggression, even—it's too detached, too theoretical, numbers whizzing by on screens and through servers, nothing you can hold in your hands at the end of the day. I doubt too that I could be a full-time caregiver. I'm affectionate, but only to a certain limit before I shut off, feeling tapped and wrung out by other people's needs. The thing wriggling inside my bones wants to share. It wants to take something from my imagination and explore it and put it into clumps of English words and reexamine it and share it with people who are interested, and I have yet to come to the floor of that well. My drive to write feels bottomless.
Writing is both tangible—a book in your hands, a story you conceived—and intangible—strings of words and ideas seeking to communicate a vision, a vision that can only shift once it's entrusted to another's mind to translate and re-visualize. Somewhere between tomato and spreadsheet, there's my book.
What about you? Do you make? If so, what do you share with the world—stories, meals, jokes, opinions, lyrics, blog posts, beer, clothing? What would it mean to lose your ability to make? Would you boil over, wither, lose your sense of self? If it's a hobby, could you imagine it becoming a profession? Would that be a dream come true, or the ruination of treasured pastime?
What does it mean to you to make?