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On why writing, art and work sometimes feel like a waste of time

I haven’t written very much for the past month. Maybe even more, the past two months. I haven’t felt like I have anything to write about. Yesterday I realised why.

Sure, ok, I’ve written in tiny bursts. Raggedy bits of writing. Fuelled by guilt and the cup of coffee that I ‘needed’ to get me in the right headspace (and that cost more than the bag of ground coffee I already have at home). But nothing substantial and nothing regular. For weeks, I had two explanations for why I haven’t been writing as much.

First, I need to make rent money. I have several ideas about how to earn a living. I consider these ideas temporary stop-gap jobs that will earn me money whilst also giving me time to work on what Elizabeth Gilbert calls ‘my vocations’. Dream life scenario basically. Work a little, earn enough, spend time on your ‘art’ (cut to Ross in Friends ‘working on his music’). So far, none of this has worked out. Freelance careers aren’t just a myth are they? The type of work that only really exists in America, the place where you can be a life purpose coach?

I’ve applied to several proofreading and editing agencies and procrastinated over applying to many more. If you’d told me when I was a teenager that a huge portion of my adult life would be agonising over how to write a winning cover letter… I wouldn’t have believed you. And I would have tried to hate math less and become a dentist.

In the ‘vocation’ category, I’ve been researching and putting together teaching resources for teenagers about bullying, depression, self-awareness and body image. I have a long list of topics I want to cover and the conviction that there needs to be more really beautifully designed resources for teachers to use. When I was teaching full-time I never had the time to create the lessons and resources that I really wanted to to use. So I am trying to make some. And sell them. This is my secret career hope. That I can make things that are informative and beautiful and HELP TEACHERS.

P.S: that’s my project, the mysterious BIG PROJECT I mentioned a few weeks back.

I haven’t got very far with this idea because making something informative AND beautiful… surprise, surprise… is difficult and takes time. AND I feel INCREDIBLY GUILTY about working on it. Not to mention completely ridiculous. So far, I’ve loved the process, but it’s a slow burner money-wise. So I feel guilty as all hell when I dedicate myself to it entirely. As you well know, we’re all for encouraging hobbies but only if they can be monetised immediately or happen on a Sunday morning during the Church time-slot. If it’s a time when most of us are eating pancakes or attending Church then sure… use it guilt-free for whatever activity calls to you. Now I eat pancakes super fast and then make Power Points… #thefuture.

The second reason I haven’t felt like writing is that the internet overwhelmed me. Or, as I’m here to be honest, I allowed self-confidence to be crushed by the huge quantity of incredible writing online. Not just the incredible writing actually… just the sheer metric ton of new writing that’s posted every day on the internet and social media. How could I ever compete? Where could I exist in all of THIS?

Every new article idea I had… already existed online, in several formats, from multiple angles. All more articulate, witty and moving than even my most hard-won pieces of writing. WHAT WAS THE POINT?!?

I knew that I was supposed to keep chipping away at writing, that I would eventually get somewhere. Persistence and time are a big part of finding a place for your work. I KNOW that.

As a teenager I had a poster on my wall that I made out of cardboard and cut out magazine pages. The blackmail style message read: ‘I KNOW IT BUT TELL ME HOW TO FEEL IT.’ What a wise adolescent I was. Not a particularly talented artist, sure, but I’d grasped the fundamental pull that we have between our reason and our emotion. And the fact that often it takes us years to really, in our bones, understand something.

Turns out, another weird thing about adulthood… knowing more doesn’t always help. Especially, for me, when it comes to doing work that earns money. I feel that responsibility very strongly. I’m proud that I can support myself and that I’ve kept myself alive for so long. It’s very logical to put earning money before anything else but I’m starting to feel like that’s the only reliable metric for judging the value of my work.

Yesterday, I realised that hovering around all of these concerns of mine, there is the hazy and familiar fug of depression. Ironically, this understanding came to me as I was putting the finishing touches to my second educational resource… a Power Point on depression.

I’ve had serious bouts of depression. I do not have that. What I am experiencing right now is a really bizarre compartmentalised mix of extreme happiness and bleurgh.

On one hand, I love living in France. The warmer sunnier weather is even better than I imagined, having an apartment of our own is so much better than I imagined and every day I feel incredibly lucky to spend time with my boyfriend Andy who makes me laugh so much. I am so grateful for him and for so many little things daily.

On the other hand… I feel lost with my work, with my style, with my value. I feel very meh about all of that… very irritable and lacklustre and what’s the point? One of the blogs I like reading regularly is Swiss Miss. Recently, she posted a photo from the 99u conference (which often seems to feature in my existential crises) that showed a man on stage in front of a giant screen with the quote ‘What compliment do you wish you could receive about your work?’. I was lost for words. Or thoughts. What the hell?!?! I know what I would have once said… I would have said that I wanted someone to say that my work was useful to people or that it would last well beyond me.

After months of reading articles and trying to write articles, of following the surges and lulls of news, of trying to surf the internet and enjoy it the way I used to devour InStyle and Interview, I just feel like I’ve eaten too many sweets. I have a ‘content’ stomach ache.

What work could I produce that might be useful amongst this multitude, what work is lasting anymore??

So I feel like I have a kind of a cartoon rain cloud over just one part of my life- my work. To be honest, this has always been the most problematic part of my life. I wonder how happy I would have been if I had become a dentist?

This is a new feeling about work and writing and art generally though. This is a feeling that even if I were successful then what do those mean now? When I was younger I felt like writers and artists- the work that I aspired to and admired- created something that left a trace in the world. The very best altered the world. They made a mark, an almost physical indentation in humanity. I don’t know if I feel like that’s possible anymore.

The best book I’ve read in the last five years (The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt), the best music (Sampha or Michael Kiwanuka) or painting (Kara Walker) or play (I’m counting Book of Mormon) or movie (Get Out)… how can they possibly survive in our memories and in our histories amongst ALL OF THIS.

I feel like I’m in a Hitchcock movie and the content of the internet and social media is the uncanny vertiginous fear that hunts me. I scroll endlessly with my head spinning and a look of terror on my face (my outfits are superb though). Finally, exhausted, sobbing, I fall at the feet of a brave artist (a man obviously) and cry out, ‘WHAT IS THE POINT?!’

Pancake photo and recipe from Minimalist Baker, photo of Ross from Friends in ‘The One with the Prom Video’, Interview magazine June 1994.

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