Sisyphus: A writer’s tale (and two hundred and fiftieth blog post)

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IPHONE PHOTO BY COLIN RIGLEY Perhaps the perfect metaphor for life as a writer is not Sisyphus perpetually pushing his boulder up the mountain, but this battered golden toilet full of flowers that I walk past on the way to my office each day. It’s quirky, it’s been through some shit, but at the end of the day it still makes office life that much more interesting. And I’ll save the story of the golden toilet for a future blog post.

I spent the better part of Tuesday morning in an Apple Superstore, fighting back tears, trying and failing to resist the impulse to pace and wring my hands, as two very nice and accommodating employees examined my three-month-old laptop that was a Christmas gift from my boyfriend.

My laptop had crashed the night before, just as I was about to finally send off a 20-hour, 93-page editing project that had somehow become my white whale. Over the course of the hour that they worked on my laptop it became apparent that this was no minor problem that I would feel stupid for not being able to fix myself. They told me that my hard drive was likely defective, but not before offering to try to help me find the document I told them I desperately needed to send off for work.

By some miracle, among the wreckage of mislabeled documents, they found the one I was looking for. They even let me use their computer to email it to my manager so I wouldn’t miss my deadline. It was enough to keep me sane despite the overwhelming bad news.

For the past seven months or so I’ve been freelance writing and editing for a marketing company in my spare time (on top of working full-time as the managing editor for a newspaper and writing novels). It’s the type of work that 18-year-old me swore I’d never do in part because it didn’t conform with my vision of myself as a bigwig publishing executive with a corner office in a New York skyscraper and a career as a bestselling novelist on the side.

But being a writer in actual reality isn’t anything like my vision of life as a writer. There’s a lot less money than I anticipated and a lot more rejection. And I realized over the last couple of months, as certain truths of the profession have had several opportunities to sink brutally in to the depths of my marrow, that I have a choice.

I could walk away from this industry of penury and rejection, or I could decide that I am meant to be a writer, come what may, and apply my considerable force of will to shaping myself and my opportunities into something I can be proud of (ideally while still managing to pay my bills).

Eighteen-year-old me did not have sufficient experience to understand this, but I have come to believe that modifying your expectations, learning to be flexible in how you apply your skills, is an act of courage and wisdom. And an especially difficult one because it is a decision you must make again and again and it never has the heady taste of triumph as courageous decisions should.

I’ve always identified as something of a Peter Pan character. I would forge my own path in this life, maintain my youthful joy and zest for life, and refuse to allow the hard realities of life and adulthood to change me, to chip away at the little prisms in my head that keep life shiny and interesting.

Of late, however, I’ve been haunted by a quote from the movie Peter Pan. It’s something the mother Mrs. Darling says, defending her husband’s bad behavior. And as a child I remember hearing it and thinking it was a paltry excuse for a man who had lost his zeal for life. And why shouldn’t he, when his life sounded so terribly boring and, well, adult?

“There are many different kinds of bravery,” she says. “There’s the bravery of thinking of others before one’s self. Now, your father has never brandished a sword nor fired a pistol, thank heavens. But he has made many sacrifices for his family, and put away many dreams … He put them in a drawer. And sometimes, late at night, we take them out and admire them. But it gets harder and harder to close the drawer… He does. And that is why he is brave.”

And as a child, and teenager even, I knew that would never be me. I would be a different kind of brave. But we live in a post-Peter Pan world, I’ve realized. Robin Williams is gone. It still puts a sad, lingering ache in my stomach to write that. And yes, I know that was a different movie entirely, but he will always have an important place in Peter Pan lore.

But back to the day my hard drive decided to crash taking a piece of my sanity with it. So you have a better idea of why my sanity was in such fragile condition to begin with, this was not the first setback for this freelance project. Originally, I had slightly less than a week to edit a 93-page website, which was the largest freelance editing project I had taken on for this company. I completed the project three days early because I knew the company was on a tight schedule and I was trying to help them out. As soon as I finished the project I found out that I had been working off the wrong link (which I had been sent through an error, so it was a weird perfect storm of circumstances that enabled the error).

Twenty hours of intensive work down the toilet. That’s when my sanity began to crack. I had to negotiate with the company over how to proceed and received the go-ahead to complete the assignment with the new, correct link just two days before the deadline. And I did it. With very little sleep and my head feeling like it was going to crack open from staring at the screen for so long, I finished the assignment for a second time with a day to spare.

Just as I was about to send the notes, my computer crashed. I discovered, about an hour after I sent the notes to my manager and on the day the assignment was due, that the notes on my computer contained only about half of the project. A good chunk of my work was lost. I went home and re-edited the project for a third time and managed to turn it in just before deadline. I don’t believe my head has ever hurt so badly. But I had made my deadline and maintained my good relationship with the company so I had no choice but to consider the project a success.

By some miracle, I had uploaded the text from Book Three—all 90,000 words of it—to Google Drive the day my computer crashed. If I hadn’t I would have lost the better part of my work and I don’t know how I would have handled the situation. Probably very badly. As it stands I only lost about 500 words, along with most of the contents of my computer, but that is a loss I am willing and capable of withstanding.

This isn’t how I wanted to spend my two hundred and fiftieth blog post—griping about technology and meditating on the realities of being a writer. I had hoped to utilize this blog post to share big news. But big news does not maintain a schedule—or at least not mine.

As far as problems go, a defective hard drive might not sound so significant. There are far worse evils in the world, daily tragedies that easily overshadow anything I’ve experienced by far. But I’ve never been of the opinion that the existence of greater tragedies somehow negates a person’s right to be sad or angry when things go poorly for them. Perspective is all very well, but you can’t tell a person they’re never allowed to be sad or angry over the course of their entire life because there are people who are dealing with worse situations. Frustration is an important part of the human experience, and I’m a firm believer in embracing all aspects of this experience—mourning my losses, however seemingly small. (When I feel the need to mourn, as I did in this situation.)

And I’ve come to realize that Sisyphus is a damn good metaphor for life as a writer. It’s easy to feel like you’re not getting anywhere but, without rehashing some drivel about how the reward is in the journey, you’re actually growing stronger every day, more skilled in your craft. Eighteen-year-old me probably would have had a mental breakdown and refused to complete the same project three times over. Eighteen-year-old me did not know how to be resilient, how to take a hit, mourn it briefly, and then get back up and resume the struggle.

Maybe there’s nothing particularly special waiting at the top of the mountain. Maybe it’s just the end of a long and hard career doing something you love. And if that’s the case I’ll take it. Because part of learning to compromise your expectations is learning when you won’t or can’t compromise.

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