There was a brief moment in my young adulthood when I wanted a career in outdoor education. A few years earlier, in college, I had done a semester-long course with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and among all the careers I had to come into contact with until then, the instructors for NOLS seemed to have it made.
They spent a few weeks or a few months in the wilderness: teaching others, challenging others, soaking in the utter majesty of creation, doing nothing with their days except breathing fresh air and giving attention to what was right in front of them: mountains, oceans, valleys, cliffs. That was their job, and then they were off for a few weeks until the next expedition. Plus: NOLS was global, with courses in Patagonia, India, Africa, and across the United States.
What a great life.
I wonder sometimes: what if I had quit my new job at the newspaper just then to prepare for myself for the NOLS instructor training? All I needed was a few more months of wilderness expedition to qualify. I could’ve done it.
But I didn’t. I stayed at the newspaper, and I became a journalist. I embraced the profession, and I almost always loved the work. Like many people, my job became my identity. A few years later, when I transitioned into marketing, it shook me up a little to not be a practicing print journalist anymore. I had loved telling that to people: I’m a journalist. Now, what would I tell people?
Rather than march around life declaring myself a marketer, I decided that henceforth I would be: a writer. It’s the identity that has suited me for a long, long time.
But I always remember that flirtation with something else - that alternative life and career. So it was that when I lost my marketing job this June, I had at least some prior experience of picturing for myself an alternative story.
My biggest question
We all construct stories about ourselves. Life is too complex and complicated to cope otherwise. I am a father. I am a rock climber. I am from New Mexico. More than mere facts, these elements are part of how I see myself as a person.
Maybe the biggest story we construct is about our work. Whatever it is we do for money, that’s who we are as people. I am a writer.
When I lost my plush marketing job in June, I had to figure out what I would do for money. But at the same time I had a deeper question on my mind - a question I felt I needed an answer to before I could decide on the money question.
The question was: did I still want to be a writer?
How invested was I, truly?
If you are, for example, a doctor, you are heavily invested in continuing to be a doctor. There is the financial expense of medical school, the years of brutal residency training, the nearly a decade of making little money whilst accumulating huge debt. There is also the investment in a positive identity: being a doctor is one of the few professions left in America still deemed to be more or less honorable.
I once knew someone who decided to quit residency training the year before he was set to graduate. Why, after seven years of the commitment and all that labor, the sacrifice to your personal growth and relationships, and all that financial expense, would you decide to quit? It sounded crazy, and I told him as much.
“Russell,” he told me calmly. “Quitting was the least crazy option available to me.”
That took some serious guts.
In contrast to doctors, I had much less investment in being a writer. Certainly less of a financial investment. I had not gone to school for writing, or for journalism or marketing for that matter. My investment was more about how I saw myself. Was I actually ready to put away this idea that I was a writer and find something else to do with myself?
Focusing on what’s in front of you
In the aftermath of losing my job, coincidentally or not, my new house in New Hampshire seemingly began to fall apart. First, the electricity in the bathroom went out, and the breaker for that area refused to reset (it was a dual function AFCI/GFCI breaker, which meant it could be a bunch of different things). In a previous era of abundant money coming in from gainful employment, I would have called an electrician and been done with it.
But I had my days to myself and didn’t want to spend the money. So for days, I spent hours tearing apart outlets, unscrewing fixtures, looking for ground faults, and watching YouTube videos on DIY home repair. I even went to an electrical supply store and bought a new breaker and replaced it myself. Still nothing worked.
Eventually, after a call to the previous owner, I found access through the floor of a bathroom closet to a crawl space, thinking that perhaps there was a ground fault down there. As soon as I lifted up the foam insulation under the floor, I heard it: the sound of water spraying. I ducked my head under the floor and pointed a flashlight at the sound: it wasn’t just one leak, but four, all of them spraying water over junction boxes and electrical wire.
This wasn’t just an electrical problem. Now, it was a plumbing problem too. I was dejected. Outside, it began to rain, and the rain turned into a storm. A few hours later, just after dinner, my brother-in-law came downstairs and delivered some other news: we had a roof leak.
The point of the home repairs was that, for several weeks after I lost my job, I concerned myself with what was in front of me. With my new-found spare time I had also accelerated a garage renovation I’d been planning. In addition to learning how to change out breakers, check for ground faults, and replace old copper pipe with new PEX, I had also learned basic framing and carpentry, begun to install new electrical outlets and lighting in the garage, and re-tarred my old chimney to fix the roof leak.
For weeks, I didn’t write a word. And writers write.
The break was helpful, because it raised two questions. The first was, did I miss it? And the answer was yes. Although, true to writerly form, what I missed wasn’t so much the act of writing itself as having written. Writing is grueling, exhausting mental work. Having written is glorious.
As productive as I had been the previous few weeks, not having written was gnawing at me. It felt that part of me was missing. And if I felt like that, then I should get back to it, right? It meant that even when writing wasn’t my job, it was still a part of me… right?
The second, much more difficult question
Not necessarily. The second question the break from writing had actually raised was this: what if I only missed writing because I had so internalized it as part of my identity? What if my true task was to begin to stop thinking of myself as a writer? What if my attachment to that identity was a roadblock to finding something else that I might enjoy more? Be better at? Make more money at?
To be honest, whenever I thought about this question too much depth my head began to hurt. It went on like this for weeks: questioning, questioning. I think my family began to think me fairly tedious. “Just get a job,” I could hear my dad telling me, although he never actually did tell me that.
My sister had told me to just pay attention to what was in front of me: the renovation, the repairs. If something else came up, pay attention to that. But I didn’t want to be that kind of person, who only went with what was in front of them. I was a deliberate person, a conscious person.
But that conversation reminded me of something else I hadn’t done in weeks.
Meditation and Ego
If you are rolling your eyes right now, I would have been right with you up until about a year and a half ago. As Dan Harris has said, meditation has been a victim of the worst marketing campaign for anything ever. I associated it with all sorts of pseudo helpful, pseudo scientific ideas, not to be taken seriously by a deliberate, conscious person.
Most of all I associated meditation with imprecise language. I had heard too many devotees of Eastern philosophy or Eastern religions speak in ways and give advice that came off as totally meaningless to me. It took a neuroscientist (Sam Harris) and a reporter (the aforementioned Dan Harris, no relation) to describe it to me in language I could understand.
When I finally did try meditation, it took only a few days until I realized part of the point of the exercise was to devalue my ego. When you practice observing the thoughts in your own head, and getting curious about how they come and go and evaporate into nothingness, or suddenly appear without any sense or order, you begin to see just how crazy your mind is. More importantly, you begin to think of your mind as less a precious center of self, the place from which your whole identity emanates, and more of a sort of mis-behaving physical appendage. Ego is reduced. Sense, experience, and awareness are increased.
Meditation is truly a practice, and as with a hard physical workout, it’s tough to describe the benefits in words. You have to do it to really understand it. Thus, it truly is a practice.
After a few weeks of joblessness, I was certainly out of practice with my meditation, and it showed. I started again and began to remember some of its lessons.
The question about writing and identity was certainly an important one. But it is also a deeply ego-driven one. The question pre-supposes that I have an ego (probably an illusion) and that I have the free will to exercise (certainly an illusion) and that questions of identity (entirely ego-constructed) were worth my time. And time is precious.
In the end, I actually have taken my sister’s advice: writing was in front of me. There was a laptop, there a keyboard, and things that I wanted to say.
And so I started writing again. I started this publication and named it and then I started another one (here) and named that. I resumed work on my screenplay, and a few weeks later finished that. A few nights ago, I wrote a thousand words in the morning and another thousand in the evening.
I am certainly writing.
But am I a writer? Sure. Why not.