Meaning in a Meaningless World

Writing and MeaningYesterday, on the NPR show Marketplace, Kai Ryssdal signed off, “Friday! Quitting time!” And I thought, “Maybe for you!” I was actually shocked to learn Friday morning that it wasn’t Thursday. But it didn’t matter. Every day is exactly the same. Well, not exactly the same. My writers tend to take the weekends off, so I am able to get caught up with editing. This is a bigger and bigger deal as I do more and more straight management. Which I hate. Just in case you were wondering.

Today, as this is published, will be exactly one year that almost all of my income has come from one company: Quality Nonsense. But I don’t really work for it because it isn’t really a thing. It’s an umbrella company that owns other companies, one of which apparently makes a lot of money, because I keep getting paid and all the writers keep getting paid and the owner is in a different country every day or two. I call him the International Man of Mystery. And there’s much to that. He is an odd bird. He’s a business guy, obviously, because he’s created a number of really successful businesses. But he’s also a total nerd.

This isn’t to say that we agree about everything. There is a reason why I work for him and not the other way around. And we had a bit of a disagreement about the way something ought to be done early this week, and it threw me into a deep depression. As for the specifics, they don’t matter — even to me. But it brings up the issue of meaning. And I’ve spent a great deal of this last week wondering what the point of all this is. I’m well paid for what I do, but we (Okay: I!) always come back to Schopenhauer and the ultimate paradox of life. Here, I’ll put it in a box so you can really think about it:

You work today so you can make money so you can survive until tomorrow. The next day, you work so you can make money so you can survive until the next day. The next day, you work so you can make money so you can survive until the next day. The next day, you work so you can make money so you can survive until the next day. The next day, you work so you can make money so you can survive until the next day…

The only possible answer has to be that you enjoy what you do today. And that requires that your life have meaning. But does mine? Does yours? Oh, don’t think me naive! I know people fool themselves into thinking their lives have meaning. But I think it’s meaning on other people’s terms. It’s about making money. Or it’s about being good so God will let you into the greatest after-party possible. Or it’s about fame. And they are all, well, someone else’s idea of the good life. I guess they work fine if you aren’t self-aware enough to realize that they aren’t your dreams and your meaning.

Arthur Schopenhauer(None of this should be taken as a slight against my employer, who I’m sure has enough money to never work again. I get more the impression that starting successful businesses is to him much like solving Sudoku puzzles are to me. But I don’t know. Nor do I care. I’m talking about myself.)

What I want — what I have wanted for about a decade — is a theatrical company where I could produce a new kind of play that I’ve invented. I’ve written about 20 plays of this form that combine everything that I care about. And that’s the catch. If you need to depend upon an audience of people like me, you will go out of business before the first act is over.

So I continue on, because I have to make a living. And what I do is, well, not inspiring. It is not a story/documentary about a group of teens who burn themselves to death on video just to be “cool.” But it ain’t brick laying either! It requires every bit as much work and creativity as “The Post-Postmodern Comedy Hour,” which regular readers will know is the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m paid (Well!) to be creative doing regular stuff. Because regular is what sells because most people are “regular.”

I don’t mean to associate myself with them in the least because I am nothing compared to either of them, but is it any surprise that David Foster Wallace and John Kennedy Toole both killed themselves?

This week has helped me see something more clearly, though. I can’t write novels. Well, I can write novels; I have written a novel. But there is no way that the stories I want to tell can be done as novels. Readers won’t put up with it. The one novel I have written really isn’t me; it’s a standard mystery; it is not the sort of thing that I would want to read; it’s just the sort of thing that I have figured out how to write from other writers.

Another thing I learned this week is that I’ve got to find a way to balance my paying work with the work that gives my life meaning. Otherwise, I will eventually decide that assuring tomorrow comes won’t really matter.