Sometimes being underwhelmed can be overwhelming.
I know, that sounds like one of those ooo-eee-ooo Zen statements in that it makes no sense (what is the sound of one hand clapping?) but think about it for a minute. Not only does it make sense, but it’s also true.
Mr. Computer …?
While the obvious scenario is the guy with a doctorate degree working as a barista at your favorite coffee shop, that’s not exactly what I’m thinking about here.
A blogger/podcaster named Joel Boggess tells of a meeting with a journalism professor who seemed to have the dream job. Two, actually. She taught jorunalism at one college campus and introductory writing at another. She was trained for it, the jobs served her well in the past, and she got to dispense what she knew to a new generation of writers and journalists. What’s not to like?
Except this job was killing her. Maybe not physically, but it was sucking the oxygen out of her fire.
She was caught up in the busy-work of the educational world. She was grading all these papers from aspiring writers, getting buried in all the paperwork. Maybe even thinking she was wasting her time.
Her dream turned into a nightmare.
Ever have that happen? Where you get that so-called dream job and come to realize, I’m in the wrong business?
… Meet Mr. Hammer.
I knew this guy back in California who went through something like that. He was a teacher but knew he wanted to be a lawyer. A real intelligent man, well-educated, opinionated, my kind of person. He continued teaching while he went to school, did the all-night study sessions (they tell me law school is tough), drank a lot of Jolt Cola and ate a lot of cold pizza from the fridge — just like a real college student. He finished law school, passed the bar, hooked on with a fairly prestigious law firm in town.
He’d arrived. He was in his dream job.
I don’t know all the specifics, but I know he stayed with the law firm less than a year.
Understand, I don’t know much about the legal business except what I’ve read in John Grisham novels (and occasional conversations with some attorneys I knew). But I’m told that life with a legal firm makes law school look like basket-weaving classes. The pay’s great but the hours stink. If you put in 80 hours a week, you’re a slacker.
Anyway, a year later this man was back in teaching. Last I looked he still had his bar certificate, but he hadn’t used it.
Was he overwhelmed by the legal business, or underwhelmed? Again, don’t know. Probably both, and yes, that’s possible.
Not long ago I wrote something (actually for my own amusement but I might use it for a fiction project sometime in the future) about a gifted artist who worked on the fringes of his ability. Painting billboards and signs by day, watching his beloved Los Angeles Angels get their butts handed to them on TV by night. I must warn you it’s a first draft. so it’s going to be pretty bad. Here’s a sample anyway:
“C’mon, Sal-mon,” he mumbled at the screen. Robert loved that TV; had the largest screen they made. You could really tell whether the centerfielder was spitting tobacco juice or sunflower seeds out there. You could see the sweat on Tim Salmon’s neck as he waited for the pitch. “Two guys on, two out. That’s why they’re paying you the big bucks.”
He was finishing up his potato salad; the meatball sub was already gurgling around in his ample gut. A cold Heineken sat on the table next to his recliner.
He’d rigged that big-screen TV to play the sound through his stereo and a pair of tall speakers. This home-entertainment system set him back a small stack of C-notes, but it was worth it.
“Strike one,” he snapped. “C’mon, ump. That was at least a foot outside. The catcher had to jump for it, in case you haven’t noticed.”
He’d rearranged his apartment living room to make room for that monster TV. For years he had a 17-incher that you had to huddle up to if you wanted to see anything. Now he could tell if the pitcher was touching the ball up with sandpaper before winding up, as Robert suspected.
To make room for the television, he had to move a bunch of stuff in his bedroom closet. He had his easel there, some well-used drop cloths, his paints and brushes. Some turpentine. Some linseed oil. All the stuff had to be moved.
Haven’t had time, he reasoned. Running a business is rough, takes a lot more hours than you’d spend working for the man. Got to go out and hustle. Find some customers. Show his work on his Geocities web site. Make estimates. Do the work, and hope the customer is going to pay sometime this year or next. I paint signs and billboards all day, he thought. Why do I need to smell more paint when I get home?
“Strike two. C’mon, Sal-mon. You can’t hit the ball with the bat on your shoulder. Let’s do something, man.”
Times like this, he wondered if he made the right choice, sticking his art supplies in the closet.
Robert always had the gift for art, though he didn’t know it for a long time … (snip)
…Sal-mon struck out on a fastball that dropped at the last instant and bounced off home plate. Had to have been that sandpaper pitch. The million-dollar man looked bad on that one, though there was no way anybody could have hit it and the ump would have called it a strike anyway. The inning was over, and the Angels went to the first of a line of arsonists from the bullpen. Four innings to go, but this game was over.
Robert drained his Heineken and closed his eyes at the thought of the late-inning onslaught. Shut the TV off, he told himself. You won’t miss much. Drag some paints out. Get it all out of your system and onto the canvas.
Forget it, he reminded himself. I paint enough all day long.
Bummer, isn’t it? Robert’s working on the fringes, but he’s pretty underwhelmed. Good thing he’s not real, huh?
As you probably suspected by now, I love to write. Have done it off and on since I was a little shaver. Spent years in newsrooms, and now I make my daily bread writing online.
Here’s the catch, though. Despite the stuff that passes for reporting these days, there’s nothing really imaginative about journalism. Get the facts, write ’em down quickly, hammer your story together with the most important information first, then the less important. Writing to a template they call the inverted pyramid. At best, the reporter for a daily writes a first draft, gives it a fast read-through and calls it done. Hate to say it, but it’s chimp work. Nifty little turns of phrase are verboten unless you’re lucky/good enough to get a regular column. Writing news stories was a drag, but since I had a regular column I was able to scratch that itch at least a little.
Web content writing, well, that’s basically journalism 2.0. It’s not exactly something to fall in love with. I write most of my Web content under a different name, because it’s quick-and-dirty work I wouldn’t want to show in my clips. True, it pays the bills, but that’s about all. It’s writing, kinda sorta. (This nonexistent person even has its own email address
I love to write. Allegedly, this web-content stuff is writing. But I don’t love it. It’s pretty underwhelming stuff. If it was the only writing I did, I’d feel like a) drop-kicking the computer through a window and b) cutting off every one of my fingers with a pair of rusty tin snips.
OK, I know I have to make a living, keep a roof over my head, keep the lights on, keep the cat in Meow Mix. So how do I cope?
I have my other outlets for writing. Although the amount of copy I’ve posted has dwindled somewhat in recent weeks (yeah yeah yeah), this blog is still my outlet. My testing lab. I get to go wild, chase a few literary squirrels, write stuff I care about. My ebooks (two out, one on the way) are my outlet. I have a lot of fun doing those. Plus some of my day’s warm-up writing exercises, plus some of the extemporaneous things I do off a prompt for my writing group, plus playing with fiction.
But here’s the question: Will these pursuits put beans on the table?
Probably not. Although I certainly won’t mind if my blog makes everybody forget Seth Godin or my longer projects out-potter Harry Potter, I certainly won’t mind. But the chances of that happening make a Powerball ticket look like a clearheaded blue-chip investment by comparison.
But these side projects keep me sane, and help me scratch that itch. Once that oh-so-important business is taken care of, I can concentrate on the real world of making a living without wishing I was out herding sheep instead.
As far as that journalism professor, I understand she quit her jobs. Don’t know what she’s doing now, but I hope she’s not a barista. Unless, of course, she’s doing what she loves on the side.
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