Inspiration and Irony

Lately I’ve been finding inspiration in one of the least likely places: myself. As someone who knows me better than anyone else, that turns out to be the ultimate irony.

That’s not to say that I haven’t appreciated myself in the past. As an only-child, I’ve lived most of my life as my best friend, my confidant, and my personal coach. I’ve needed to play all of those roles to balance out the more negative aspects of my personality–the self-depreciating, self-critical, self-sabotaging self that has often reveled in watching my own soul wither under its own weight. I’ve learned over time to enjoy my own failings and to exploit them with humor; I’ve learned how to pick myself back up after periods of wallowing in self-loathing. But I’ve never found inspiration within myself. I’ve found chuckles at best.

The inspiration I’ve found came from a personal challenge. It wasn’t to lose 20 pounds or even to quit smoking (I should, I know. I will someday…) In essence, I guess it is a similar process, though. Whenever you do something that you didn’t think you could do, something happens. I guess runners feel that in their “runner’s highs,” and I have certainly felt pride when I’ve accomplished things I felt incapable of doing before. I felt accomplished when I taught myself the skills needed to become a bartender–and then a mixologist. I feel accomplished when I cook gourmet meals. But with writing–the most important element of my life–I have never felt a sense of accomplishment. I’ve maintained an adequate, if barely sufficient, income for over 3 years as a freelance writer, and maybe I should feel accomplished about that. But I don’t really. Most of what I write are glorified book reports, and although I feel more meaningful in doing that than I have in many previous jobs, I don’t feel that it qualifies me as “a writer.” It’s not even to say that I don’t feel satisfied with that work. I do. In fact, of all of the jobs I’ve had in my life, writing, even if it’s writing study guides for literature, has been the most satisfying.

I look back at myself in New York at my first job out of graduate school, and I cannot help but laugh. I worked as an administrative assistant to the top three partners of a prestigious law firm specializing in IPOs. I studied Acting, mind you–but having a graduate degree in anything seems to be adequate enough to obtain gainful employment in even non-applicable fields. I’m not a “flighty actor,” and I’m smart enough to file and type, so basically I was hired. After working at the law firm for a few months, I came to realize the hierarchy there. As the secretary to the top three partners, I really had no duties at all. None of “the girls” at the office seemed to. There were 40 or more associate lawyers for the firm in addition to paralegals. These people did the “real work.” My job was principally to work as a personal assistant to billionaires. They had sub-servients to do the “real work,” so mostly my duties consisted of filing their tax payments, picking up jewelry at Cartier for their wives, scheduling their attendance at their sons’ softball games, and writing personal letters. I had a good income, benefits, and I was miserable. I felt completely useless. I know that “someone has to do that stuff” and my lawyer bosses, who were so wealthy as to have personal drivers take them to work and pick them up, didn’t want to do those menial tasks–but as a fresh from graduate school young woman, I felt that I needed to be doing something meaningful. After a year or so, I quit. Abruptly. I moved on to other jobs in other offices, and often I was met with the same disappointment. I felt useless. I wasn’t doing anything that I cared about. I was just surviving.

After a few years of this, I taught myself to bartend and swore I’d never set foot in another office again. It’s not something I regret, but bartending wasn’t really something that satisfied me much either. I had more interaction for sure, and mostly for that I enjoyed it–but I wasn’t making a positive impact in the world or doing anything I was really passionate about. When I left New York, I wondered if I would ever find anything that would satisfy me. The only jobs I’d had in the 5 years after graduation hadn’t with one exception: teaching acting to children. While that is a noble profession and one that I still believe I would enjoy passionately, it is not easy to find well-paying teaching jobs in the acting field. Frequently, slinging drinks will pay more.

I came upon freelance writing by chance through my aunt and began working for a company writing study guides. This job that I’ve maintained for over 3 years has fulfilled me more than any before it–save perhaps the teaching. There are obvious drawbacks, though, that balance out the positives of working all day in a bathrobe. Largely, my work as a freelancer provides no job security, no benefits, and it requires creative bargaining in developing ways to pay the bills and stay on schedule. Because of one of these lulls in projects, I started looking for other freelance work.

The freelance assignment I was granted involved ghost-writing on self-help subjects. Because of the confidentiality of the work, I can’t really go into detail beyond that. However, the process of working on it inspired me in many ways. First, unlike my study-guide creations, it involved more of my own personal input and writing style. Second, unlike my own personal writing, which is often bleak and depressing, this was a subject that not only was about motivation, it inspired motivation. Writing about a positive subject is kind of like hanging out with positive-minded people–it’s got that ability to rub off on you. And mostly, I was fascinated by the fact that a lot of this stuff was already in me. I may not be the most positive person on earth–I tend to liken myself somewhere between Hunter S. Thompson and Mark Twain–but I can intellectualize positive thinking. In fact, I found that I could intellectualize it, write about it, and in the process–learn to live it.

In the past 3 years, my life has changed immensely from the perpetually overwhelmed, depressed, and self-loathing state it existed in before. That didn’t come from this project–it came from within and the desire to finally find my own happiness regardless of where I might have to go to find it. I lucked out. After 30-some-odd years of searching, my happiness found me. Probably because I was open to it, and largely because I learned from past mistakes. The difference that I feel now is that I feel capable–capable of doing something that I am passionate about. Capable of structuring my work. Capable of writing. And capable of happiness.

I wish I could go back to that frustrated me of New York office jobs and say, “Hey–it’s not that bad. Really. You can play Angry Birds all day and you get paid for it.” But I know that even now if I were to go back there, I’d likely not last any longer in that job than I did then. I’d rather do something I can be proud of, even if it means no dental insurance.

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