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Working For Yourself: Month Ten (The Work)

{Me in a new vintage dress on work retreat. Not posed! By Emily Takes Photos}

I’m writing this post from a train, on a thirteen hour trip to LA, which pretty much sums up the month. Constant motion. Working while in constant motion. Needing a break from plane travel. Last month I talked about how in this break between writing and launching the APW book, I needed to find balance. And in a rookie self-employed-person mistake, I let my little bit of downtime be sucked into the vortex of travel (some work, some personal, but it hardly seems to matter when you’re counting the number of days at home before you need to leave again).

So this month was a muddle. It was getting away from the computer and actually making things with my hands and spending time with my co-workers (more on that mystery project in a bit). It was planning for my book release (which takes way more energy to do right than you’d like to imagine). It was bringing on and training a new staff member. It was finally doing the work to Incorporate. (Practical Media, Inc.! BAM!) It was traveling and traveling and traveling.

But during an often exhausting month, I kept coming back to why I do this, how we keep ourselves grounded, and how we externally and internally perceive success.

The other night, we went to see Hot 8 Brass Band. Which. Was. Awesome. (Obviously). Somewhere in the middle of second-lining my face off (if there is an opportunity to dance, I will do it. David finally just shoved me toward the New Orleans natives in the aisles, and I left him behind to shake my ass.) I looked up, and thought about how much those musicians had to love what they were doing. Actually, I specifically thought about how hard it must be for them to be on the road all the damn time, breaking in audiences that are reserved and don’t want to dance, and then playing their hearts out. And I thought about how all that getting on and off the plane, or train, or tour bus boils down to those two hours on stage.

And for a moment, I was really grateful to my art school education (which is a 180 from my 20s spent being profoundly bitter about my art school education). Because between growing up around a community of artists, and going to crazy naked performance art art school, my professional life revolves around the concept of “The Work” (a concept that totally made me stabby in college). The idea is that, The Work is hard, The Work sometimes makes you batshit, The Work is something you have to show up and do every goddamn day even if you don’t feel even slightly like it… and in the end The Work is also your joy and your salvation.

And for me, right now The Work is writing. And secondly, it’s about composing and publishing weeks of content around a theme, and cultivating community. And if I didn’t have The Work to come back to, if it wasn’t the center of my professional life, then all this traveling and scrabbling and running a business would quite possibly have driven me out of my head by now. But if I don’t write for a few days, or a week, I get this crazy hungry look in my eye and start composing essays in my head, or on napkin scraps. And that’s a hunger I can build a professional life around.

But more than that, I’ve been thinking about perceived success.

I live in a bizarre world these days, professionally. Online, I’ve joined the ranks of the micro-notorious (to steal a term from Ariel). At least within certain circles, I’m a pretty well known online writer and publisher, and I make a good living doing it. This has the possibility to really screw with your head. When people say lots of wonderful and awful things about you (people almost never say neutral things), it’s possible to get confused, and accept those opinions as fact, for better or for worse.

But then, I live in a offline world where people don’t understand blogging as a job, and when I tell people I’m a blogger at a party, things quickly start to go south. And just when I think it couldn’t possibly get worse, they ask me what I write about, and I say “Weddings” and I see the look in their eye, and I start to get weirdly aggressive and defensive and say things I don’t even mean,”Totally not what you think! Don’t pity me I make a good living! I am a successful small business owner—for gods sake I create jobs. I write books that people buy unlike books about puppets and feminist theory and microbiology micro trends or whatever what do you want from me oh god I need a drink please make it stop.” So. Needless to say, I pretty much try to avoid talking about what I do at parties. For my sanity. And everyone else’s.

But despite all of that over and under adulation, on and off line, I actually feel profoundly successful for the first time in my life (and I’ve done some on paper successful sounding things before). Why? I’m doing work I care about. I’m doing work that feeds my soul. And, to paraphrase an Elizabeth Gilbert* quote that’s stuck with me for years, “I’m glad I was as old as I was when success happened. I was old enough to know myself and know that I was neither the best things people said about me or the worst. I was not a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and I was not the most self-absorbed person ever to walk the planet.”

I know myself. I’m starting down a path of putting work I really care about out into the world, and supporting my family by doing it. And that’s enough for me. Traveling, scrabbling, outside pressures and everything. For me, that’s success.

* Not that I’m even vaguely as successful as Elizabeth Gilbert. The idea of grappling with her level of success really hurts my head. But it’s still a profoundly helpful quote.

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