Sometimes, the speed of our society makes me want to take a nap. We are all mired in this constant race, and my feet are tired. Every day, we run against the clock, each other and ourselves. Work harder, faster, longer. Publish more, more, more. Collect awards like trophies to gather dust on the shelves of your computer files, diplomas to languish on office walls that hem you in like an animal that suffered for the privilege of its cage. Write cover letters, query letters, synopses, statements, proposals, applications, essays, a myriad of documents filled with words designed to tell the world why you’re better than everyone else. Why they should choose you to validate over anyone else. We could bury ourselves under the mountains of pages that are supposed to give us purpose.
I play this game, like everyone, because I always have without really knowing why I feel compelled to seek the cosmic pat on the head we call “success.” But every accomplishment is fleeting. Don’t relish it for more than a second because that’s all it takes for someone to pass you, zoom by on Life Boulevard in a newer vehicle than yours that sparkles cherry red as it whistles, “See ya, sucker.” There’s always another rung on the silver career ladder. Always another grant to be won. Another publication credit to list on the piece of paper that only exists to get better jobs, better houses, better accolades that don’t mean anything except as stepping stones toward more of the same.
There’s no time for living in this life, it seems.
I’ve come to dread meeting new people. “So, what do you do?” they always ask, with the almost imperceptible raise of an eyebrow that accompanies every answer, no matter what it is. We are stuck like pinned butterflies by the classifications we give ourselves. Judged immediately by our titles with all their implications, regardless of independent validity.
Children dream of what they’ll be when they grow up, and maybe their fanciful answers speak to the purity of their innocent intentions. A ballerina. An astronaut. An actor. A writer. They don’t choose jobs that will swell with bravado at a cocktail party or install letters after their names like stepping stones toward the next marker for success. Children don’t dream of prestige because they know it has no inherent value.
I remember a girl in the our church’s children’s choir telling me she participated because “it will look good on my resume.” We were in sixth grade. She spoke to a concept I had never realized before: that we are all working toward something. That every action has a purpose. From that day forward, I began stacking up activities like building a staircase toward the Perfect College Application. Everything I did was a piece of a puzzle to be lacquered and presented to admissions committees so they would say “Yes. We want you. You are good enough.” But that wasn’t the finish line either, turns out. College taught me to take the right classes and participate in the right clubs and organizations to boost my resume for internships. Then get the right internships to make the right contacts to get the right jobs to claw my up the ladder to make enough money to retire someday and be allowed to quit the job I spent my entire life working toward.
That doesn’t sound like what my child’s heart whispered what it wanted.
When I was in high school, I worked for the teen section of our city’s newspaper. I remember the electricity of gathering sources, conducting interviews and researching my stories before sitting down to feverishly construct the news out of my very own fingertips. Every Wednesday, my hands would shake as I pawed through the paper looking for my name in print. Right there, Lizz Schumer. I existed. That newsprint proved it. It felt like I had done something important.
My byline doesn’t feel that way anymore.
It’s never enough, because our constant speed-freak society tells us it isn’t supposed to be. I am humbled and amazed at the outstanding accomplishments of my friends. Nearly every day, someone publishes a book, someone else gets a fantastic new job, someone else writes a story that knocks the breath out of my chest and makes me want to stuff the paper in my mouth and swallow, the better to absorb the wonder of their words. Someone buys a house, gets married, undertakes any of the thousand milestones that make a life, a career, a successful human being by all the markers we’ve been learning since someone first asked us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
We’re socialized to celebrate our friends’ accomplishments but always with the demon in the back of our mind that says, “But what have you done? They’re winning. They’re better. They’re winning at being better.” It has emerald eyes and a scarlet tongue and both ooze onto everything around it, sliming the clean consciousness you’ve cultivated as a good person, a charitable person, a person who’s just competitive enough but not jealous, because they may be kissing cousins, but one is a virtue and one is not and we all know which is which.
I struggle with this constant need to outdo each other, to prove our right to be on this planet. I haven’t set foot in my office since the beginning of January, but I’ve learned the real value of my work outside it. Since I began writing for a living, I’ve forgotten the simple satisfaction of putting pen to paper. Churning out words every day in pursuit of a paycheck gives me the title that tells the world I exist. I love the tactile satisfaction of being a journalist. I love making connections and learning new and exciting things every, single day. I am lucky that I can make a living doing what makes me happy. But even then, I had forgotten the simple, soul-deep joy that comes from writing for its own sake, not because the clock is waiting for it. I had forgotten what I meant when I said I wanted to be a writer, so many years ago time has clouded the memory.
Sometimes I suspect that most people are unhappy for a disproportionate amount of time. They spend all day working jobs they don’t like to make money to buy things they don’t need, living toward 20-odd waking hours at the end of every workweek. Social media is inundated with complaints from corporate drones who hate the way they spend the majority of their days, but that’s what they’ve been taught to do to get ahead of all the other corporate drones who are just as miserable as they are. I wonder why so many of us undertake this Sisyphean struggle toward an unobtainable ideal? Whose idea was this dream?
Being at the Vermont Studio Center has taught me that there are more than one ways to live a life. Here, I am surrounded by artists who live at residencies, who subsist on grants and fellowships, who teach just enough to get by and spend as much of their time as possible making art. Ours is not a competitive society.”You should apply!” said one writer to another, about an approaching fellowship deadline. “I just did, and I think you’ve got a great shot.” We share information with one another not because we want to one-up the other’s accolades, but because we are all in this together. It may not be pure, but it feels like it. We are here because our spirits told us to make art, no matter what. All the rest is noise.