Because an article like this relies a lot on tone and emphasis, and because the amount of italics I would have to use to accomplish such a thing is comical, this article is available here as an audio article, as well as in the more standard written format.
Also, I mention my mother in this article and she merits an introduction: Cady Elizabeth Arnold is a bomb writer of fantasy(ish) fiction, currently working on book 4 of her current series. OK; here we go!
We hear a lot about “Work/Life Balance.” It’s a gospel preached to all sorts of professionals, but especially towards those of us who freelance. The warning parable usually goes a little something like this:
“I used to work work work. I was working all the time, and when I wasn’t working, I felt guilty. My life was terrible because I was constantly choosing between unhappiness and guilt. At some point I figured out that I didn’t have to feel bad when I wasn’t working, and now I’m free to work less, while still being productive and happy.”
Fairly innocuous, right? I’m actually really happy that the person saying this is happy in most cases. I think they’re probably more in touch with themselves now than they were at the beginning of their tale, and I would bet that, if they’re an artist, we’ll see their work flourish because of it.
For many people, this story will feel like a healing balm; a welcome release from a similar sort of guilt that they themselves have felt. It is a beautiful message to receive: “There is someone like me; I am not alone. I am not abnormal.” I believe the transmission of this message is a huge part of the reason we make art in the first place.
But there is one small thing about this story that I’d like to address. There is a hidden message tucked away here, hiding in the shadow of the more beautiful message, using it like a trojan horse.
That message? That to be happy, our “work” and our “life” have to be in perfect equilibrium. In other words: you should “work” and “life” in equal amounts; this is the correct thing to do. And that assumption is WRONG.
The reason it’s wrong is that each of us is unique, and we need different things from our lives. For each person who this message has freed from working too much, from anxiety and from guilt, another person might be bearing the new and equally painful brunt of the idea: I should “life” more.
For a painter who loves to paint, or a musician who takes joy in composing, this can mean doing what they love less. As people talk more and more about “Work/Life Balance”, there is a subconscious swelling of the idea that we must “live” more, in order to be “doing it right.” But who is to say that painting, or any other type of enjoyable industry, isn’t living?
In fact, when I’m fully wrapped up in painting, at the edge of my mental abilities and pushing myself harder than ever, I often feel very much alive. I feel like I was born to this. Maybe it’s silly, but who cares. I became this way over time, and here I am. And I will admit that I have felt a lot of guilt over being someone who likes to work. I have been told I should “get out and live a little,” or that I should “spend more time on other things.”
But what the people delivering these messages misunderstand is this: when I work, I am not unhappy. I’m not doing it out of social obligation or shame or guilt, or “just to get by.” Sure, if I’m on a bad project, or working through the pain of an injury, some of that might come into play, but on most days I LOVE painting. I love drawing. This pursuit isn’t just my profession, it’s my hobby. It is the oldest love in my life. Why on Earth should I want to do it less?
While for some the above personal message may feel like unwarranted overkill, I know there are people out there who will want to hear it. I would have wanted to hear it. I used to think I was doing something wrong at times, painting for long stretches, ignoring the things in my life that people told me I should be more focused on – but then, I got lucky.
In an otherwise normal conversation with my mother she said something just a little bit “off,” used a particular turn of phrase, and all of the sudden I realized that she might also just…like to work? I put the question to her directly: “Do you do all this [insert various acts of industry here] because you must, or because it keeps you from focusing on X and Y in your life, or do you just want to?” After a brief pause she admitted: “You know, I guess I just want to. I like to be busy.”
OH WOW. There it was for me, the beautiful message: “There is someone like me; I am not alone. I am not abnormal.” It was such a relief. OK, so I’m not “doing it wrong.” It’s OK to be this way. That conversation really normalized this for me: this craving for industry, for the sensation of forward movement that I get a lot of from my painting.
And so, I want to pass on that same message to those that might need to hear it. If you just want to work, that’s OK. I free you from those social engagements you don’t care about. I free you from parties filled with mostly strangers, from unnecessary but polite social networking, from birthdays you forgot from time to time and from vacations you’re being guilted into all in the name of “Work/Life Balance.”
Maybe others will see it as “too much work,” or as “unhealthy;” they will use all sorts of words to suggest that you should be like them. They aren’t trying to hurt you. In fact, they’re trying to help you. They’re trying to tell you what makes them happy, because they think it will make you happy too. But without realizing it they might be giving you the very message they themselves so loathe: “you are weird for being this way; you are wrong.”
Nobody, being their true self, and striving to behave ethically and responsibly along the way, is wrong. And unfortunately, there isn’t a catchy slogan for that being tossed around the internet these days. We hear the phrase “you do you,” from time to time, but we don’t really stop and put the two together. Maybe we should.
I would like to point out that there are those who have agreed with me throughout art history, masters from other times who felt the same, in their own way. I can think of one particularly powerful passage in Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit, and I was about to go and look for it when I realized: that’s just me needing Henri to have my back, needing a justification to feel the way I do and to say this. But I don’t. Who am I to “free” you to work? I don’t need to absolve you of your guilt – NO ONE should have to feel guilty for being what they are. That’s the whole point people talking about “Work/Life Balance” are making, and in that regard I totally agree.
I think we all want to see each other accept what we really are, and chase that, and use it to its fullest. That is the path to mastery. That’s why “Work/Life Balance” isn’t permission to slack off when you really need to put in some effort – when you need to learn how to mix your colors or draw a decent human figure. Similarly, it isn’t a decree to put down your brush just because you’ve been working on that painting you love for nine hours straight. Whatever the path: you do you.
If you liked being able to listen to this article, I’ve got a little side project I’ll be launching here on Muddy Colors on July 8th that might peak your interest. Stay tuned.
Music for this article is courtesy freemusicarchive.org. The song is RC, by Requin Chagrin.