The Key Difference between "work" and "The Work"
We all possess rich inner landscapes. Emotion, mood, belief, circumstance. We juggle these daily. We often feel juggled around by these, too. We feel judged by others for having these, if they're anything beyond the acceptably subtle or held back. What we feel bridges all the gaps between how things are and how we dream them to be.
Yet even as we feel and feel we must do and do. For many that means obligations, duties ... work.
What if I were to say this is the blessing and the curse of the artist?
What if I were to wager a bet that everything you feel, an artist feels, but with color, noise, and static?
Artists have the compulsion to act out these inner maps of feeling. I cannot imagine what everyday people do who don't work in creative fields. What do they do to let it out? I can't imagine not having an outlet for this inner noise, these swarming dreams.
There's a vast chasm separating "work" and "The Work." Most of us sign up for work, recognizing we must tread water to stay afloat.
On the other side, some of us risk drowning to do The Work. Our Work. We desperately learn to swim after only just having been tossed into the ocean.
For a while I tried to ignore these clarion calls from within. I covered these with traveling afar, wandering along the brink, social drinking, overthinking, a sinking into – and through – lost potential. I used to work "normal jobs" to "get by," an idea passed to me perfidiously in this workaday culture. We're told to buck up – because you just have to do certain things. Unfortunately, an artist does not get the simple pass on this. He does not get to pass up his gifts, or cash out on these for something more practical. (I’ve tried and failed.) These unused gifts whimper inside, hidden. For some, they believe they've succeeded in snuffing these inner voices out. The gifts that once were now are blunted by a more "practical" life (what does that even mean?)
But for me, I couldn't bear the thought of leaving these voices behind. I couldn't stand not doing My Work.
So I began.
Why do we fear the limitless potential of life?
I created a children's book, launched my career. Failed. Return to waiting tables.
Why do we cling to the known? Wasn't even the known created in the crucible of the unknown?
While working two job-jobs, I continued the work that actually mattered: I wrote a second children's book. (Often at 3am, the only time between shifts I had to myself.) I emailed all 627 Barnes & Noble locations in the contiguous US. Much of this I did while resting/stretching during training for an Ironman (another kind of work that distracts from The Work.)
Why do we return to what's familiar, especially when we know what we need lies ahead in unseen lands, unseen hands?
I moved to Asheville, NC. I stopped the nonsense of traveling just to run away, of drinking as distraction, of romance as hiding place. I lived in community, settled in, and made a vow to my artwork. I created a card game, a series of greeting card designs, and started my street poetry business. In spreading myself too thin, I failed. I returned to traveling, during which time I neglected all art and writing. (I did however work to get my Yoga Teacher Certification while traveling. An improvement?)
To do The Work is scary. It’s not scary because there’s some lack of pure potential with which to work – quite the contrary. As children we love potentiality – it is the playground of the mind and spirit in which we play! But as we grow up, we need to decide to prune away the possibilities if we are to distinguish ourselves as something at all. As Dr. Jordan Peterson writes in his book Beyond Order, “it is far better to become something than to remain anything and become nothing.” He writes and speaks a lot about how Peter Pan isn’t just a boy who remains a boy, but that he represents the archetype of the man-child (my words.)
He can do anything = He can fly.
He represents full potentiality, but it remains unmanifest = He remains a boy. However magical, it is tragic and somewhat pathetic in that sense.
He plays with and admires Wendy, but cannot take her as a partner in life. He cannot take that leap of responsibility and thus cannot grow up (or because he can’t grow up, as it’s depicted metaphorically.)
Until my mid-twenties I was Peter Pan. I was a weird amalgamation of Peter Pan, Tarzan, and Huck Finn. As such, at times I felt enlivened by my lack of committing to one path (I pursued them all! All while traveling and dodging taxes!) At times I felt self-mythologized, making myself out to be a man raised by apes, but with no real intentions (though unlike Tarzan, I could have developed my intentions. I could have allowed myself to become “sivilized,” [sic] which is something Huck Finn says he won’t stand for, as he restarts his boyish wandering in the last line of Twain’s famous book.)
“It is far better to become something than to remain anything and become nothing.”
Again we can apply this to most people’s lives. Some kids grow up with just one dream instead of a slew of them, like me. That one dream lasts a number of years before being crushed by the machinery of so-called practicality. When it does, the individual, now grown, has chosen a path. It may not be The Path on which she engages in The Work, but it is a path nonetheless. There's dignity in choosing, committing to, and building something. In some ways, it beats even the most magical dreamer if he does nothing to manifest his dreams in the real world.
So how do we go from dreaming to becoming?
How do we “kill our darlings,” as Stephen King suggests, pruning away anything (yes, even dreams!) that stands in the way of carving our distinct path? How do we convert dreams into daily scripts for behavior, habits, obligations, connections with other humans – all the things required to make dreams into real things?
Well, I’m afraid that becoming an artist, with its day-to-day digging and patient piecing together, ultimately boils down to something … quite …