Writing and the Meaning of My Life

Writing and MeaningI’ve been having this strange experience after I go to bed. I lie there and think of nothing in particular. But I know that I’m thinking about my life and it’s lack of meaning. That’s especially true regarding work. What is the point of it? Work has always been very important to me — central to my sense of meaning. But I no longer think that way. Work is a means to an end. And that end is…

You see the problem. We get to the usual issue that Schopenhauer explained so well. We continue on so that we can continue on. Until we don’t. The ultimate goal of life is to die. So why not today? It’s not that I’m suicidal. In fact, my will to live is extremely healthy. But that’s the thing that bothers me. It’s so irrational.

When I was younger, I determined that the meaning of life was to have a good time. That is about the only thing that you can use to push back against Schopenhauer. Life isn’t a total drag. But more and more it seems to be. I keep thinking about this one little speech that Aaron gives in the film Broadcast News.

As you may recall, Aaron got his big chance to anchor the evening news. But he broke out in a fit of sweating. It’s a funny, but tragic scene:

Afterward, Jane comes by his house and finds him happy. She asks why, if things went so terribly wrong, is he so chipper. He replies:

I don’t know. At a certain point it was so off the chart bad — it got funny. My central nervous system was telling me something. Jane — sweat running down my face — makeup falling into my eyes — people turning this fusillade of blow dryers on me — all so I could read introductions to other people who were covering stories which is what I like to do anyway.

Now in the film, the truth is that he’s in love with Jane and that’s where the scene goes from there. But I think he’s dead on when he says that he’s providing introductions for people doing what he most likes to do.

I like writing. I can’t not do it. And I’m a professional. I can do it at any level you ask. If you want something cheap, I can do that. If you want something finely tuned I can do that. I can write ad copy. I can be clever. I can be technical. I can write something so boring no one will ever read it if that’s what you need. I like writing. I’m good at it and it makes me happy to do it.

But I don’t really write for a living. I manage other writers. I make sure that they do an acceptable job of what I would prefer to be doing. Sure, I get to do some writing: for the other writers. And I put more style into this writing than I ought to. I write it off as the price that has to be paid for my not going totally insane.

So what is the point? I know this is a meta-grumble. I’m doing very well. This is why I’m lying in bed wondering about meaning — because I’m not lying in bed wondering how I’m going to pay my phone bill. Still, there ought to be more. And I could pay my phone bill through writing alone.

Morning Music: The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp

Sing Me Back Home - Hickory Holler's TrampAs I’ve been picking through these early years of Merle Haggard, it’s hard not to get angry. To most people, he is remembered by his most vile and largely artless work: “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Are the Good Times Really Over.” Those three reactionary songs are hard to get past. And it isn’t all. I like the song “Workin’ Man Blues,” but he has to ruin it with that crack about welfare. But there is a depth of feeling in his early work that is irresistible. Take, for example, “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” off Sing Me Back Home.

Story songs are tricky, especially when you don’t have much of a story to tell. And the story of “Hickory Holler’s Tramp” is a simple one. The singer’s father turns to booze and runs away with another woman, leaving his mother with 14 children to raise. So she becomes a prostitute, and the song is a celebration of that. And of course it should be. You do what you must for those you love. The song is highly sentimental, but it is hard not to find it touching.

Of course, there really is no disconnect between “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” and “Okie from Muskogee.” It’s just a question of empathy. Haggard understands a mother abandoned with children to raise, since that was the story of his mother, although under very different circumstances. But the stereotype of hippies he used again and again indicate that he knew nothing of the young people he stood in opposition to. The key issue is that songs are very personal. If you don’t have empathy, you lose something really important. And what you are left with are less edifying emotions.

But “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” is a really beautiful song:

Anniversary Post: Letter from Birmingham Jail

Martin Luther King Jr - Letter from Birmingham JailI am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

— Martin Luther King Jr
Letter from Birmingham Jail
16 April 1963