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The Joy Menu #11: Hobbies
Your intrepid author kicks over his Polish footstool and considers The Hobby as a radical anti-capitalist act (or maybe an embarrassment).
Today I am thinking about hobbies. I don’t know if it’s a shared experience or unique to my specific brand of neurosis, but hobbies have always given me trouble.
What Is This Thing You Call A ‘Hobby’?
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary (vis-a-vis Siri), ‘hobby’ is a noun meaning: “an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure.”
Leisure time, activity, pleasure. What could be bad about all that?
Sounds ideally suited to a newsletter called The Joy Menu.
And yet, I grew up not only resistant to the idea of having hobbies, but embarrassed preemptively that any of the creative pursuits upon which I spent the bulk of my time (music, poetry, stories, comics…) might somehow be reduced to a role in my adult life as slight and unassuming as a mere hobby.
Imagine that: artistry or creation as a leisurely, pleasurable, private act. I shuddered to think.
To my young wanna-rockstar self, the suburban dad who, after a long week in slacks and a button-up, came home to play drums in the garage with his dad-band, made me shudder. (The fact that I knew no such dads notwithstanding.)
To my adolescent wanna-Bukowski self, the unpublished novel, bound at Kinko’s and mailed to friends and family as a holiday gift, made me groan. (The fact that I’d never read or received such a novel notwithstanding).
To my insecure almost-man self, fewer fates felt more dangerous than mediocrity. If I trained at Julliard only to regale my friends convincingly at karaoke, wasn’t that the most fundamental failure at life?
My ego—acne scarred, bird-chested, prematurely bald—wouldn’t be able handle such a profound indignity.
I remember one night, a few months before I left New York to indulge my bohemian fantasies as a Writer Abroad in Buenos Aires. I was having a semi-farewell dinner at a greasy Indian eatery with a woman I was dating at the time—a woman who, minutes before, had suggested we continue on, but only as friends.
She: “I wish you luck out there with your writing.”
Me, taken back: “Luck?”
She: “Yeah, luck. With your writing career. I hope it works out for you.”
Me, staring—horrified, offended, afraid: “It’s not about luck. It has to work out for me. It just has to.”
Not the writing, turns out. Not the art. But the career.
You Can’t Commute To Work On a Hobby Horse
In my twenties, I made a hard run at writing “full time.” This meant getting paid for it. And if I wasn’t getting paid for it, I was scheming, practising, pitching, networking so as to get paid for it later.
The good of this meant I brought every paid gig the focus, seriousness, and fullness of mind I felt was due to a professional activity; for example, I spent an entire week on each book review I wrote for Publishers Weekly. (Fun fact: they were 250 words long and paid me $35 each).
The bad of this: I felt grinding despair and debilitating fury when I couldn’t land enough paying gigs; grow my portfolio fast enough to pay my rent; or when I ran short on ideas, contacts, access, reach, cash.
Publishing a piece meant a week or two of grinding work, followed by six minutes of elation, and then another week of frustration and contempt as I compared my creation to every other better-placed, better-paid, better-written creation...across the entire Internet.
Because writing was My Profession, it became inexorably tied to My Self Worth, My Identity, My Value. And when it went poorly, I was poor. (Both literally and figuratively.) And when it went well, I was, well,...fine, for a minute.
And then I was Not Enough, and the cycle began again.
Every Writer Needs A Room With a Polish Footstool
Now that I have a job—even a career (shudder!)—unrelated to writing but grounded in creativity, I’ve had to reevaluate what I’m doing when it comes to art, to writing, to that dreaded bogeyman: the hobby.
The fact is, I write on the weekends, in the evenings, during my lunch breaks. If I had one, I might even write in a garage. I have a dozen short stories in various stages of production, a few that I’m trying to publish, and a novel draft sitting on my desk (full disclosure: it’s not a desk, it’s a Polish footstool—but hey, #2020) waiting to be edited, dissected, entirely rewritten.
Is writing, for me, a (shudder!) hobby?
Perhaps. But is that so bad?
Perhaps a hobby, taken seriously, and performed consistently across the most productive and income-generating years of our lives is actually the greatest middle-finger an average middle class Joe(y) can perform to American capitalism (while maintaining health insurance and a 401K)?
Maybe a pursuit which is wholly artistic, personal, and creative, but which shifts no capital into anyone’s hands at all, is valuable just for being what it is: valueless within the market, but meaningful in and of itself. And only for the self.
Like spirituality. Like love. Like companionship.
Perhaps I just misunderstood artistic creation as a young rockstar/adolescent Bukowski/talented-but-insecure almost-man.
Perhaps this is what it means to be an artist in 2020, in late stage capitalism, in America, in my Room with a Polish Footstool.
And why not? It’s leisurely. It’s pleasurable. And most days,I’m not embarrassed by it at all.
Be well, friends —
and until next week —
onward to creative joy,
My Polish Footstool (photograph from Etsy; my room is not this clean)