2015: Work, and the Fruits of Work
Nearly 900 words on how I’m not so sure about writing
Here’s what the Contributions graph in my public Github profile, which (imperfectly, but still) tracks my contributions to projects hosted by Github, looks like today:
Here’s what it looks like when I’m logged in to my account:
Here’s what it looked like on the day I left my job at 29th Street Publishing, in July of this year:
Taken individually, these graphs paint vastly different pictures of how I spent 2015. According to the first, I’m a hobby programmer who occasionally noodles on a single repo. According to the second, I only kicked into gear, code-wise, in the last half of Q3 and Q4. But no, says the third graph, I was steadily committing code for all but a few days of vacation throughout the first half of the year.
Taken together, I’m a career developer who has made significant contributions to her workplaces, in addition to owning her own projects. It’s almost like you can’t judge someone’s creative output based exclusively on what you see online!
I just scrolled through my Instagram and a quick count reveals that I posted photos of 20 different sewing projects in 2015: mostly dresses, two men’s shirts, a jacket, some baby bibs, and three quilts. Each of these involved between a few hours and several weeks of work — not that there’s any way for you to know this.
Which is exactly why I love sharing photos of my in-progress and completed projects: I like the attention and admiration, sure, but it’s also a way to publicly mark the labor involved. It’s the (similarly incomplete) equivalent of the Github contributions tab, but for the hundreds of hours I’ve spent sitting on the floor of my apartment basting pieces of fabric together.
I wrote exactly two pieces of any significant length for public consumption in 2015: one on my favorite breakfast for my friend Marian Bull when she was at Saveur, and one on birth control and the worst month of my life for my personal Tumblr.
Stepping back from writing these past couple of years has been a semi-conscious decision. Here’s a quote I think about a lot, from an advice-letter response that Paris Review editor Lorin Stein wrote in 2010:
If these assignments come without a paycheck or a deadline, however, and if you find that you keep avoiding them, I think it’s worth asking yourself why. Maybe you don’t want to do them. Nothing feels better than walking away from a job you don’t want to do.
I think I’m a good writer, but I’ve known for a while now that it doesn’t come easily for me: I avoid it until the last possible second (like, say, publishing this year-end review mere hours before the year ends), I inconvenience my editors, I become miserable to be around. The past couple of years have been an experiment in seeing whether it does feel better to walk away from this job I don’t seem to want to do.
The results: it’s been more jarring than I expected that I’m no longer publicly considered a “writer” at parties and on Twitter! (Don’t worry, I realize how embarrassing this is to admit.) I miss the fanfare around publishing something and having people enjoy it. (That one’s embarrassing too, isn’t it?)
But most importantly, I don’t miss the actual act of writing, which means that…I just miss having my ego stroked.
There’s a quote from the Bhagavad Gita (quoted, in turn, in Franny and Zooey) that I also think about a lot:
You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working.
I thought of this the day that the owner of an app I’d spent significant time on, and was enormously proud of, pulled it from the App Store; I was sad, but the time I spent working on those features had made me a better programmer, and the app had never belonged to me anyway. I thought of it when I sent away two labor-intensive baby quilts to two new mothers knowing they’d be vomited on by their tiny owners; for all I knew they’d end up in the back of a closet, but it meant a lot to me to think of my pregnant friends as I sewed.
I also think of this whenever I remember that a magazine feature I wrote a few years ago continues not to be available online, which I’m annoyed about much more than I should be. (Ego stroking, remember? There’s nothing necessarily wrong with it, of course, but there is when you didn’t like the work involved in getting there.)
2015 was the year I learned that labor is more important than output, and that the outward-facing representations of both are almost always incomplete. 2015 was the year I learned that this is as it should be.