I need a new project; something enormous and scary, something to sweep my evenings up and away. Because now, looking back on everything I’ve made over the last decade, I realize just how much these side projects have helped me during tough situations:
- Adventures helped put a shape to weekends that would otherwise have left me in despair.
- Newsletters helped me repair the damage of intense social isolation during the pandemic. It also gave me an excuse to reach out to people I admire and say “oi!”
- Futures helped me get out of a hospital bed in England and recover from my family tearing itself into a million pieces.
- Mistakes helped soothe me during a toxic work relationship that was so awful that I scurried away to LA to have a small breakdown at a friend’s house.
- A book project that never worked out helped me get through a summer with no pals in a new city.
Those sorts of projects—those that completely consume my time/attention/energy—really are therapy for me. And although this might sound like my life is a train wreck, that’s not really the point I’m trying to make here. It’s just that when things are tough I know I can lean into a side project and it’ll realign my focus and give me something productive to do with so much unstructured time.
I’ve only recently started to see projects as therapy though, because I’m still fighting the overwhelming amount of nonsense that was hammered into my head when I was a kid when it comes to art and work.
Here’s the nonsense: there’s this notion that’s pervasive in our culture that great artistic achievements are really just an act of self harm. Writers, musicians, and artists describe their work in this way all the time; how their pain or sadness—their mythical origin story—is necessary for great work to be done. They fetishize pain and loneliness and sadness to such an extent that the work becomes a way for their pain to be excused, for their self-abuse to be acceptable, just because this one song or painting or joke is perfect.
And so I used to believe that happiness wasn’t productive for making good work. And I hoped beyond hope that my work would outlive me—so I hoped for a sad and isolated life. If only I could write that one immortal sentence or phrase, do some heroic literary deed, that would make the sadness worthwhile but subsequently it would make my entire life worthwhile. So to write that very special thing, I imagined immense pain and loneliness stretched over a vast period of time. I believed that's what made great work, great art. Grit. Waking up at 5am. No friends. No family. No nothing. Type until it hurts and then keep typing because it hurts.
All this nonsense is present everywhere; literature, self-help marketing Tik Toks, blog posts about how to become a good designer. And yet despite it being obvious nonsense, it’s really hard to let go of the idea that your life is worthwhile despite the work. It’s hard to say “if I never write another word again it doesn’t make me a bad person, unworthy of love or respect. I am worthy of love regardless of how much I write/act/paint/blog.” Just typing that out right now—well, boy howdy!—is that a terrible way to structure your life. It sets up this extremely fucked up relationship with your work.
It also sets up a toxic relationship between you and other people’s work, too. Like, damn, Miller really wrote the living shit out of The Song of Achilles and so I despise her now—how dare she write something astronomically good whilst I sit here blogging my life away.
This way of thinking about work is poison and it reduces life to nothing less than a cruel and vindictive competition.
But our work doesn’t have to be like this. It can be this restorative act, this meditative thing that we do each day. The work doesn’t have to be grueling for it to be great. And the work does not have to kill us to make us worthy. We don’t have to treat other people’s work as if it’s a competition, but rather a benefit to our own work because now we can leap frog off of it.
So I tell myself that I can treat my work with as much care as I treat myself. And that I don’t have to sacrifice one for the other. We don’t have to fetishize our grief to make great things. We can be kind and open and happy and the work can still be good.
Or the work doesn’t have to be there at all. And that’s okay, too.