Last week I ditched my writing desk mid-day to go climb a mountain. Then I felt guilty about it, so I whipped out a notepad and composed an apologia for ignoring work whenever the weather’s pleasant.
Since then several friends have pointed out weaknesses in my claims.
First, a certain native North Bender questioned whether reaching the top of Rattlesnake Ledge counts as “climbing a mountain,” to which I say IT MOST CERTAINLY DOES, LOOK HOW TALL AND POINTY IT IS.
More significantly, a fellow writer noted this in an email to me afterward:
We've talked about those rules before with a positive view on rule 7—that rule 7 really is the most important one because you can’t be a writer if you don’t write.
I stand by last week’s assertions that putting in long hours is a poor way to “validate our worth,” that life is too short for “arbitrary conventions like forty-hour workweeks,” and that Tim Kreider was right to call out everyone’s self-imposed anxiety-fueled “histrionic exhaustion.”
But I may have gotten a little histrionic myself when I jumped straight to noting that work doesn’t really matter anyway because we’ll all be dead someday. (Tip for your next fight: if you can’t make your case with a strong argument, just jab with nihilism.)
The fact is that work is crucial. Slogging through tough tasks whether we like it or not has been the key to humans’ advancement across history, both as individuals and as a species. Work is what built Rome, and from what I hear it took more than a day. Centuries of difficult, focused labor brought us all the marvelous science and technology that make blogs possible, as well as the government-building and government-challenging that allow us to exchange ideas freely therein.
When I consider how I implied work is inherently useless—while taking a sip of the clean, fluoridated water that’s reliably piped to my apartment thanks to others’ efforts—I feel I ought to be slapped for my ingratitude.
There: wrist slapped.
That takes care of my apology for the apologia. But let’s get back to what my writer-friend commented on: the importance of working as a writer.
Sitting atop Rattlesnake Ledge (the MOUNTAIN I climbed), I wrote that “If I type away at my laptop a certain number of hours [it] doesn’t matter.” I implied that the world (and its libraries) would go right on turning (and loaning) whether or not I contributed anything to either.
True enough. But what if Philip Pullman had said the same thing while struggling to develop his craft as a young man, and decided that rather than keep striving, he’d simply quit and drift? What if he never wrote the rich, thrilling trilogy that is His Dark Materials?
What if Leo Tolstoy threw up his hands and didn’t bother telling the tale of Anna Karenina? Or if Margaret Mitchell threw in the pen rather than follow Scarlett O’Hara through to the bitter end?
These are books that changed me. They shook me and wracked me with tears so all-consuming I could hardly breathe as I read the final chapters.
Pullman’s embrace helped me cope with my crumbling cosmology in college. Tolstoy and Mitchell made me ache for characters I wanted to disdain and showed me how morally complex individuals can be.
These writers, and countless others, widened my understanding of the world and taught me empathy.
Have you had these experiences with a book? They’re rare, but they’re real. And they’re the work of writers.
They’re the work of writers who took their jobs seriously. These authors respected what they were doing; they poured themselves into masterpieces of scope, scale, intensity, and complexity. I believe that society is better thanks to their books. I know that I’m a better person for having read them.
So yes, writers’ work is important. They may not be saving lives like surgeons or building bridges like engineers, but their contribution to civilization is critical in its own way.
As Emma LeBlanc says of her fellow writers, “We are the guardians of our collective humanity.”
“Stories are what unite us,” she continues, “what tell us who we are, what our values are, who we want to be, and where we’ve come from. Stories are what let us live, meaningfully, in a world that is otherwise chaotic and frightening.”
I’m no Pullman, Tolstoy, or Mitchell. But neither were they at first. They achieved greatness because at some point they decided that the long hard work was worth it. They started writing, and they kept at it for as many years as it took to develop their art and tell their stories—and in a chaotic and frightening world, their stories are meaningful to readers.
I claimed previously that “If something I write is meaningful to someone, then I’ll consider myself lucky. That’s all I could ask for.” This is still the case. And no, I’m no Pullman, Tolstoy, or Mitchell… but, all luck aside, if I keep putting in the necessary work at my desk, maybe someday I’ll be someone’s Luidens.
When I came back down to earth last week, I returned to my writing: it was time to invest some more time and effort into the tasks at hand. The good work continues.
One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it.
interview with Diane Sawyer, 2010