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.

10 thoughts on “Meaning in a Meaningless World

  1. I would say it pays for this but it doesn’t. I would say it pays for the ancestors trip for your dad but you will never go on it. BECAUSE YOU NEVER TAKE TIME OFF. Even when I come out to visit you, you will be like “how do I add email to my phone so I can work?” or you will be answering emails while we wander around the Natural History Museum.

    So instead I will say you do like some of the work you do otherwise you wouldn’t do it. You have enough sense for that.

    • Ha! When I read this, I was on the road and getting lots of work done. I’ve been amazed at how much I can get done on my phone.

  2. “Work’s always been what’s kept us happy,” as Evelle said in Raising Arizona.

    Also, I bet your novel is more readable than one of David Foster Wallace’s.

    • Oh, the novel’s very readable. It’s just not that interesting. But if you like, focus on Toole who was both brilliant and clear!

  3. I couldn’t find a graph creator to express this (granted, I didn’t look hard) but you’re a math guy, I can describe it and you’ll know what I mean.

    Imagine the graph of half a sine wave. Invert it, so it starts off going down. Then cut it in two horizontally; at its apex (or whatever the damn term is from geometry, bleep me if I remember.) Add another half, connected to the first, oriented the other way ’round.

    Basically, I’m poorly describing a sharp downward slant, then a bit of a lull, then another sharp downturn.

    And I imagine the X-axis would be “salary” and the Y-axis “difficulty of job.”

    Sounds like you’re in that hideous midpoint. Where you don’t want to fall back into gas stations/convenience stores (somehow, I’ve magically managed to sink even lower — it’s my superpower, I guess) and yet working harder isn’t going to elevate you to some Board Of Directors where you can spend all day researching the history of the word, “word,” while pulling down eight figures for e-conferencing ten minutes a month to vote “sure, why not.” Nor, I suspect, would you want to be one of those assholes. Yet working at a stressful, demeaning, underpaid job is not acceptable. (Shouldn’t be. Too many Americans have to accept it! Let’s change this!)

    My grand solution to your dilemma is … I don’t have one. You’re f****ng older and wiser, you figgur it out! I theoretically sympathize with the problem, though. At this point, I’d probably write Fuehrer Trump’s “round them up and kill their babies” speech if it would get creditors off my back for a day. Not that you’re doing anything so gruesome, your paid work sounds quite helpful to many! Just that, clearly, there’s a level of ascension in the corporate world you don’t want to take, and the place you’re stuck in is the middle of my imaginary graph. It’s a pickle.

    Maybe ask “WWBBD?” except I’m not sure Bob Belcher is the best career counselor, love him as I may.

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