Society provides us with a variety of canned expectations that we are acculturated into accepting as our own. Take the expectation that a long term relationship will end in marriage and children.What about the expectation that hard work will result in promotions? There are a slew of writing-related expectations, too: that you need an agent, that publishing only counts if it’s traditional, that you should write what sells. How many of these things do you want or believe, in and of yourself, separate from what society has programmed you to think?
I have a day job. My choice is to limit my emotional and time investment in my career and put more effort into my true calling, writing. Most of the year, I don’t question this; I agree with Joseph Campbell that “your art is what you would call your work” and “your employment is your job.”* Then my boss gives me my Annual Performance Review. The experience triggers an upwelling of self-doubt and even shame. If it is my choice to do my job well, but not pursue any definite paths to advancement, where does my discontent originate? Why does the review make me feel bad about living and working the way I feel is right for me?
When I was in college, I worked at the dining hall. After one year, I decided to apply for the position of supervisor. I went to the interview and was sent an odd rejection letter. I kept the letter because I was outraged by it, but now I realize that my interviewer saw a truth about my nineteen year old self that I struggle with to this day. I quote:
“You have proven to be an excellent addition to the Dining Hall staff. However, it seemed in your interview there were two Anikos, one to the East — confident and eloquent, and one someplace else — uncomfortable with the image of you as a figure of authority and longing to escape.”
I am East and elsewhere. I have always lived with this division, and it is only recently that I have begun to understand the problem. On most days, I feel like I’m living my life very well because I manage to stay true to my core values and still make money working in a fun environment with great people. Then comes my review. It forces me to measure myself on the Eastern scale of my employer. My lack of advancement stings because I am internalizing society’s expectations of how life is ‘supposed’ to go. I feel pain because I am applying a system of measurement that I have already chosen to reject.
I should not succumb to the dark euphoria of pitying self-flagellation when I do not measure up to an arbitrary standard I was never even trying to reach. It’s easy to whine and rage and flail. It is difficult to accept the call to follow one’s own path. Ultimately, I know that that my real reward is to live my life in accordance to my own truths, not a canned set of aspirations. I remind myself of what Epictetus wrote, “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things.” I am bothered by viewing myself from a corporate perspective, not by some real problem with me. I may be capable of being ‘East,’ but ‘elsewhere’ is my true place.
Turmoil and angst are generated by focusing your attention through a framework that is a mismatch for your core values. I think this is why so many writers struggle with the decision to go indie. There has long been the idea that publishing is only legitimatized if a work is carried by one of the big New York houses. This was the case in the past merely because there was no other affordable avenue to publication and distribution. Yes, many writers or supporters of writers started their own small presses: Bill Bird’s Three Mountain Press and the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press are two examples. Today you don’t even have to bother with buying and operating a hand-operated press; you can format your novel on a cheap laptop and set it up for publishing on demand or deliver it to readers electronically. The reality of publishing has changed, but societal expectations and judgment are slower to adjust course than is the technology that sweeps us into an egalitarian publishing era. I know the most common question I get when I mention my novel is, “So you found a publisher?” Lay people and writers alike are struggling with the perspective shift. The important thing is to be aware of the expectations, perspective, and framework you are using when you evaluate your choices for publication. Distinguish between you want and those expectations that have been sold to you as being what you “should” want. Then do what is right for you as an author.
- Reflections on the Art of Living – A Joseph Campbell Companion, Editor Diane K. Osbon (1991).
- The Enchiridion, Epictetus ; translator Thomas W. Higginson (1955)