Steven Pressfield talks about “Depth of Work” this week over at his blog and unmasked the true culprit behind the blue funk I’ve been mucking about with this past month.
While it is true that I’ve been at the computer every single day working on various projects, I haven’t been doing good solid work. He likens this shallow type of work to schmoozing at the gym rather than training at the gym.
I remember the absolute dismal-ness I used to feel when I worked as an official court reporter for the County. I was assigned to a courtroom that never, ever started on time. And that set the tone for my whole attitude towards my job there. Since the boss was late and I couldn’t report proceedings that weren’t yet happening, I was always late myself.
So the routine went thusly: the clerk and I moseyed down to the Starbucks to pick up coffee for the judge and ourselves; I usually picked up some sort of snack since I left late and didn’t have breakfast; and then I goofed off on the Internet until it was finally time to go on the record.
Easily I burned off an hour or two each day with this routine, and I had no one to blame but myself. Sure, the judge controls how his courtroom is run; he’s the boss. But I had a wealth of time handed to me each morning, and yet, I was often late with transcripts, I always complained I didn’t have time to write because of my commute (even though I often took the train), and I always felt like shit.
So even though I was self-righteously griping about how hard I was working, humping my way across Southern California on a two-hour commute each way — oh, you should have heard the violins! — I wasn’t doing good, solid work. I can’t count the days I showed up where we weren’t in trial, had no proceedings on the record, didn’t do a lick of work, and went home.
Sounds dreamy, right? High-paid government job doing nothing. On top of that, as a reporter, I was allowed to leave early — officially, 3:30 — if our courtroom was finished for the day. Sounds like a perfect situation for a writer-in-training. And it was.
But I was fucking miserable. I was so fucking miserable that I quit after seven years. No more benefits, no more extra 1099 transcript money, no more high salary, nothing. Just freedom and a huge COBRA payment, which I still pay to this day.
Even though I loved the job — what a great job! — I have no regrets about leaving it. It was never what I wanted to spend my whole life doing. And spending 20 hours a week commuting effectively killed a lot of the pluses for me. (I think commuting in stop-and-go traffic at that level slowly kills you at the molecular level, I really do.)
What I do regret is not being proactive about working hard when I did have the job and the opportunities that came with it. I had a plum position. But I was so caught up in this routine, letting it run me, that it was everything I could do to keep up. As Lily Tomlin famously said, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” And I hated being a rat.
Now here I am today, lucky to be able to stay at home full-time with my 14-month-old daughter. I have less time to write than I ever have had in my entire life, and I don’t feel that I can afford the luxury of splashing around in the shallows anymore. I don’t have a high-paying salary or paid health benefits anymore. I need to be able to work deep, focus hard, and do good, solid work on a consistent basis each time I sit down at the computer. I need to be able to do this for my family.
This has been a challenge for me this month. I’ve let down my guard. Something’s shifted. Just as momentum can work in your favor, it can also lead to your demise. I let a short story project throw me off the horse. I think that might have started it. Then, with my foot caught in the stirrup, I let the damn horse wander off the path and graze in the dandelions while I dragged behind in the mud contemplating my navel.
I’m glad Mr. Pressfield brought this up. I’ve been writing myself in pointless circles this month. The only writing that counts in my book is writing new fiction. Blog posts don’t count, outlines don’t count, brainstorming sessions don’t count. I’ve put in the same amount of hours each day, and yet, all the work I’ve been doing has been work that doesn’t really count towards my goals. I’m schmoozing at the gym. I’m being led astray by my own horse. I’m letting the tail wag the dog.
The only solution, of course, is to recognize what’s happening and take control. After all, I’m the boss now, and there are perks and benefits to being boss that far outweigh all the wonderful things I left behind with the government job.
I’ve got to go deep and stay there. That’s where you should find me. If you catch me surfing in the shallows, kick me in the ass and shove me back to my desk. Seriously.