One truth I’ve known about myself since childhood is that I write in order to understand the world. When my soul threatens to break under the weight of a question, I set out like an explorer—with my pen as my boat and the blank white page as the open seas, with little knowledge of where I may go and praying to find new land.
When we started writing BIG WORK, I didn’t know what we would learn specifically. I just knew that I had recently turned 30 years-old, that I was already dangerously close to being a workaholic and I didn’t know why, and that the weight of trying to figure out where work was supposed to fit in my life threatened to break me. So I set out, although this time not alone. I would quickly learn that writing with a partner and having long conversations with interviewees were critical pieces of navigation equipment missing from other voyages.
Before Melissa and I interviewed others, we interviewed each other. We sat down with a tape recorder and asked each other the thirteen questions. Listening to the recording of my interview, it became clear that for me illness and work were inextricably linked. I was sick for the first 25 years of my life, and my biggest goal growing up was not to become dependent. I couldn’t wrestle with the question of the role work played in my life without also getting curious about how an unresolved legacy of illness was still shaping me.
Picking this apart took 18 months of interviewing and writing. There were many stepping stones along the way, but the moment that stands out happened while I was interviewing Safiya, an aerospace engineer born in Pakistan. She talked about having grown up in four different countries, and about being one of only a few women and a few Muslims in her field. The more her story twisted and turned, the more I saw the expectations and complications from her many identities swirling. Every detail of her story seemed to speak of constant change. And yet, it was, in many ways, one of the most lighthearted interviews I did—because she LOVES what she does. She said, “I get to send stuff to space!” no less than a dozen times during our conversation, grinning widely each time. The little girl she described to me who loved science had grown up to be a scientist. It was the thing that never changed when everything around her did.
I’ve always feared that I am who I am and that I do what I do because I was sick. That I’ve made all my choices based on my limitations, real and perceived. But talking to Safiya inspired me to ask myself what hasn’t changed for me since childhood, and I came up with two things: I’ve always been curious and I’ve always been a storyteller. As a young girl, I begged my teachers for extra homework, and was quick with a question for everyone I met. And at four years-old, I would ask my mother to write down the stories I made up because I wasn’t old enough to write them myself.
I’ve seen my work and my life through a lens of illness for so long, that I never stopped to realize that I work in a day job—communications—where I’m paid to ask questions and tell stories. And suddenly all the seemingly disparate parts of my life—the communications manager, the nationalism scholar, the tanguera, the traveler, the playwright, the friend—were linked and made whole by the oldest truth of my life, I am a curious storyteller. I am a grown up version of that four year old little girl. I don’t know what this means moving forward, but understanding this about myself has allowed me to like my work more and to need it less, to find more balance, and to have a deeper understanding of my life.
I believe in the power of story to heal. Writing BIG WORK showed me how connected my life is to strangers and friends alike, and how telling our stories can make us feel more connected to each other. It reminded me that the stories we make up about our lives can be treacherous, but that we can reframe them and write new endings. And it reminded me that wading into the murky, black, uncharted waters of our story can be frightening, but it can also be our salvation. In the process of writing BIG WORK, I found new land.
One day when we were nearly finished with edits and getting ready to cast our first workshop reading, I went out for a walk near my house. I wasn’t even thinking about the play when I heard an unexpected voice creep up from deep inside my heart and say, “This is the last thing I’ll ever write about being ill.” I stopped for a moment, caught off guard, and then I smiled. I think I knew it was coming.
For so long, everything I wrote was about being sick or from this perspective. Because when the reason you write is to understand the world, and when something has taken over your life and you can’t understand it, and you’re trying not to feel it but you can’t let go of it, it creeps into everything you try to write.
That voice I heard on my walk wasn’t a declaration or a promise of future behavior—I may write again someday about that part of my life. But what the voice was telling me was that I don’t need to answer that question for myself anymore, just like I don’t need to answer the question about work anymore. I am satisfied with how that part of my life fits into my narrative now. It is integrated. I carry it with me, but it rides in the back seat; it doesn’t steer. And because of that, I can be curious about other things and wrestle with new questions on the uncharted waters of a new blank page.
As an artist, I've had many day jobs thus far and if I'm honest with myself, I will probably have many more over the course of my creative life. I used to think that success meant getting to quit these jobs and work on my theatre making full time. I knew in my head that I was a "real artist" despite needing a day job to help me pay my rent, my loans, and buy groceries, but I didn't really know this in my heart. Writing and performing BIG WORK did so many things for me, but the biggest and by far the most healing gift it gave me has been a resolution of this longstanding tension.
First and foremost, I believe that we must have our basic needs met before we can allow ourselves to make art. For me, when I have been worried about how to pay my rent, student loans, and buy food, it's impossible for me to dive deeply into the sea of creativity and come up to the surface with anything except anxiety and fear. I have gotten to know myself enough to realize that I need a fairly sturdy financial foundation before I feel free to let my artistic mind explore. While I used to think that keeping my day job and creative work separate was necessary, I now know that having a job that supports my art, not just financially, but emotionally, is important to me. Uniting all the different parts of myself and the different roles that I play does not in any way dilute the artist I am, but makes me stronger and richer in my ability to create something meaningful from my whole experience.
Here are a few other unexpected discoveries I made in the process of making BIG WORK, as it relates to my own day jobs and my creative work in the world:
1.) I need the support of my artistic community AND the support of my day job community. And it's there, just waiting to be noticed.
A number of the donors to our IndieGoGo campaign last year were people from my day jobs. In the weeks before, during, and after the performance, I received cards, emails, calls, and texts from so many of the amazing people I've met over the years at hospitals, lumber yards, classrooms, offices...each and every message of love and support of them meant so much to me. Was I terrified to let the people I've worked with, both past and present, see the play and thus me in a completely new light than they had in our workplace? Absolutely. But it has been incredibly moving to have shared something so personal with them and have been received with love and support. If this play was an emotional skydive, then my co-workers and managers were waiting for me on ground level with open arms. To dare to show up and be seen, unsure of how the people in your life will react, and in the end, be greeted with generous love and support is something that I wish everyone can experience at least once in their lifetimes. Now at my day job, I get asked how my creative projects are going, what I'm up to next. After she saw BIG WORK, a doctor I used to work for wrote me an email. "I am so proud of you. It was so well done and thought provoking. I had a great time! Please let me know of all performances. I look forward to more shows." For a long time, I got to watch this woman in her element at the hospital, doing what she does best: working with patients and changing their lives. To get to invite her to see me doing what I do best was, and have her accept the invitation with joy was incredibly moving.
2.) Here's perhaps a not so surprising "secret": my day jobs have financed my creative endeavors-- without my day job, BIG WORK would simply not exist.
The great Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about this symbiotic relationship in the natural world:
"When we look deeply into a flower, we see the elements that have come together to allow it to manifest. We can see clouds manifesting as rain. Without the rain, nothing can grow. If we take the clouds and the rain out of the flower, the flower will not be there. Without the sun nothing can grow, so it’s not possible to take the sun out of the flower. The flower cannot be as a separate entity; it has to inter-be with the light, with the clouds, with the rain."
The play that we created is my flower, and it contains countless "non-play" elements: the struggle to balance my job, finances, artistic work and personal life was my rain, self-doubt and fear were the clouds, and the joy I felt at making the difficult and scary choice to see this project through to completion was a blazing sun. I needed it all, and couldn't afford to waste any of it. You have no idea what you are going to use from your life to create something meaningful.
3.) I have been infinitely inspired artistically by my experiences in my day jobs.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a doctor and a pilot and a horse jockey and a lawyer--well, you get the point. I hated the thought of having to choose just one thing because I was so curious about all the different experiences someone could have on this planet. The beautiful thing about being an artist who needs a day job? I get to play countless different roles, both onstage and off, and all of them have been invaluable to my creative life. I've worked in a courthouse, a lumber yard, a diner, a hospital, a library, and have even hosted Wild West themed birthday parties for children...from these experiences have come a play about male breast cancer patients, an idea for a web series about historical reenactors, and inspiration for many characters I've played on stage and in film. I cannot wish these experiences away because they are inextricably linked to what I've created. They are part of me and I am grateful for all of them. It's now with wonder that I glimpse my future of working in the world, and not with heavy dread. Who knows what my future day jobs might inspire for me?
4.) Writing, producing, and performing BIG WORK has helped to transform the way that I think about the role that a "job"plays in my life.
I now have very different definitions for my “job” versus my “work" in this world. My “job” will likely change many times over the years, and is what helps me pay my rent, my grocery bills, and my student loans. My “work” in this world is as an artist and creative – it’s a constant throughout the different seasons of my life. At various times in my life, these two definitions have overlapped and crossed paths, but I’ve come to understand they are two completely different things for me. And that realization has made all the difference.
Did you see BIG WORK? I'd love to hear what the play broke open for you in regards to your jobs and work in the world. Feel free to share in the comments below!