Sisyphean Patterns

This is the second of two consecutive ideas about categories, sort of.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Albert Camus
Sisyphus, by Franz von Stuck. 1920.

My ex-wife once told me that I ended my career by choosing an interdisciplinary graduate program. I could have stayed at Berkeley and done a PhD in architectural history, but no, I had to go off to a lower-prestige school and study small-town teenagers in a program with a title that nobody would understand.

She was right, of course.

But the work itself was exactly the right work, and that program gave me the intellectual latitude and the resources to pursue my own ideas rather than simply mirroring someone else’s. I got to work with geographers and novelists and historians and psychologists and designers to create my own recipe of thought, and it was absolutely exhilarating. The fact that it didn’t turn out to be a spendable currency probably could have been foreseen, but I wasn’t interested in work that was only means toward an end. The learning and thinking and writing were worthy ends in their own right.

And now, I’m repeating that pattern, by writing stories that don’t have an identifiable shelf-tag. There’s a lot of professional coaching about personal brands, about doing that one thing really well and “staying in your lane” and “focusing on your core competencies.” But the unspoken half of that message is that it’s a lot easier if everybody recognizes that your lane exists. John Grisham built his brand through a steady stream of legal/political thrillers, creating a product that led to an appetite for more of the same product, like Doritos. Elizabeth Gilbert changed paths in mid-career, moving from a broad array of writing into a series of coaching memoirs, and now has a devoted Oprah-like community of women who will follow her magic. All of the writers whose names are larger than the book titles on the covers got that “big name” by producing a reliable, high-quality, consistent product.

My writing life is just like my grad-school life. I have curiosities and compulsions that don’t lend themselves to known paths in major markets. I’ve written one book that might be called a romance, but I’m hardly a romance writer. I’ve written one book that’s a political thriller, but I’m not interested in becoming John Grisham. And now I’m writing a young adult, without the expectation that I’ll have a YA “career” like Rainbow Rowell. People just come to me, and I write about them.

Last week in the New Yorker, the brilliant (and newly Macarthur-annointed) cartoonist and creativity teacher Lynda Barry published an exercise she calls the “face-jam.” The idea is that people draw part of a face and then pass the drawing to someone else who adds another feature, literally seconds at a time, until eight different people have had their hands on each drawing. And in the end, each of those invented faces reflects a personality. Barry writes:

How can such specific mood-states show up in faces made by eight different hands? No one intended to make any of these people, yet here they are with specific dispositions. Who creates a comic? The person who drew it or the person who sees it?… We draw a face to see who shows up. We draw to activate our everyday super-power: we find faces, people, creatures in a few scribbled lines. They arrive intact. We can answer questions about them.

And that’s it, both in grad school and in my writing life. The people arrive intact, and I answer questions about them. I owe it to them to move into their lane, rather than have them force-fit into my own.

Like Sisyphus, I’ve taken the same task as a writer that I took as a graduate student. I follow a path that isn’t a path, and hinder my “career” by doing so. We repeat our patterns, don’t we? We learn the same lessons a thousand times. And yet, to borrow from Camus, the struggle toward the heights is enough, and I can be happy in the daily labor. I only worry when I’m at rest; when I push the stone, the stone is all there is.