Thoughts on “Respectable” Work

This week marked the tenth anniversary of my graduation from the University of Texas. Like all anniversaries, this one has provided me with the opportunity to reflect upon choices I have made, how they have influenced my life, and what value I have extracted from them.

In the main, such discussions, which I have had with everyone from my husband (while walking through the grocery store) to writers from other continents (via the internet) have centered around one clear idea: others’ expectations versus individual dreams and goals. Though I often want to imagine that I am the only one who’s been thus scrutinized, it turns out that there are quite a few folks who struggle with the age old battle of pressure—whether from family, friends, or society in general—to do something “respectable” rather than what truly moves them.

So today, because I owe you a blog post, my loyal horde, and because it’s important, I give you some thoughts on just that.

“When are you going to get a real job?”

“You can’t be serious. I mean, what are you going to do with your degree?”

“That’s nice, but what do you really plan to do with the rest of your life?”

“You know, nobody really makes it writing. Why not be a teacher or maybe an insurance agent?”

I’ve heard all of these before. Every one of them, in some form or another, has been directed at me regarding the (apparently) controversial and public topic of my pursuit of writing as a career goal. Yet they’re not unique to me, and they aren’t unique to writing, either.

What they are, however, is full of shit.

When someone says to me, “Say, Lisa, now that you have that Master’s degree, when are you going to…y’know…go get a real job?” they’re telling me that I embarrass them. I have this damn fool graduate degree that I haven’t used and that cost me too much money, and that’s nice to them—they can brag about it. But the fact that I do whatever work presents itself in the meantime to pay the bills while I focus on my writing rather than chasing an unfulfilling career elsewhere means they can’t use me in conversation the way they want. They’d feel better if I would just go do—whatever—as long as it wouldn’t make them uncomfortable.

But these are the same people who have never supported me in anything I’ve done that wasn’t staid, conventional, and time-testedly boring. I have told them, both in so many words and in nicer ways, to go fuck themselves. They have spluttered and flushed and let the rage they want to spew bulge in their eyes, and I have invited them to kiss my ass.

This has been profoundly liberating, because they are people, not gods, and while they may make much noise, they cannot hurl down the thunder. The worst they can do is remove themselves from my life, and even then, considering how they act—what is the loss in that?

I say all this because I dedicated a dozen years to making people happy. I did as I was expected to do, and I reaped the rewards of debt, misery, and a loss of sense of self.

If you are committed to what you are doing, be it writing, art, or anything else that moves you, do not fall into the trap of craving the acceptance of others. The cup will never be full, no matter how much blood you let into it, and you may rest assured that the hungry imps of disapproval will bleed you dry. Turn the cup over, walk away, be the master of your own fate.

Should you yet feel the sting of those poisonous little doubts that they have introduced regarding whether your goal can be important even when half the world thinks it’s not “real” or “respectable,” consider this example:

One of my favorite writers, Robert E. Howard, often faced this scrutiny. He lived and worked in a tiny Texas oil and ranching town (which really has got no bigger in the intervening decades) in the 1920s and 1930s, and most folks gave him a hard time because he wasn’t doing “honest” work. But  it’s said Howard made more selling his stories to the pulps than the town bank president’s salary, and in the heart of the Great Depression he was able to buy a car with cash money. Still, people harassed him for not doing “real” jobs or “respectable” work.

He tried many. If my memory serves, he worked for a soda fountain, for a department store, for a laundry service, even. He went to business college on his father’s insistence. But Howard persisted at writing, and he broke in—and stayed writing for the rest of his life. And though he died too soon at 30 by his own hand, in the years he did write, he created some of the most memorable characters Fantasy, and specifically Sword & Sorcery, has ever known, Conan the Barbarian among them.

I don’t think Howard ever really knew the impact he had on others, but there are countless writers who owe their inspiration to him and claim him as the fountainhead of their lineage. He had a real and lasting impact, and though many might have faulted him for his chosen vocation, he rose above them.

Maybe none of us will become a modern-day Robert E. Howard, but we can follow his example and rise above those who condemn our efforts. You can be the master of your fate, the captain of your soul.

Do so. And should anyone give you the least bit of a hard time, tell them to go to hell.