If there is one movie I loathe with a passion, it’s “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” This is not a moving tribute to the joyous rewards of the profession of teaching (don’t forget, he goes into forced retirement at the end of the film). Instead, it’s a frightening reminder to anyone working a “day job” and trying to do their art “on the side” that time is an enemy, not an ally. Years slip through your fingers like beads of water flowing from a gushing tap. By the time you have the sense to cup your hands and take a drink, most of it has disappeared down the drain.
There’s the famous story that T.S. Eliot used to work in a bank before emerging as a literary powerhouse. I used to picture him slaving away behind a teller’s window or a desk, composing snatches of poetry in his head while filling out paperwork. At the time, I had no idea that he actually enjoyed it (and considered it quite relaxing). But having a “day job” you enjoy is just as dangerous as having one you despise. I think that’s part of the familiar narrative of “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” You get so caught up in one thing that you don’t even notice you’re neglecting the other. As much as we try to deceive ourselves that we can “have it all,” the reality is that life is finite and difficult decisions must be made.
It’s especially easy to be lured into artistic complacency when you are trying to earn a living. I’ve finally figured out that there is no “tomorrow.” I’m ALWAYS going to be too busy, too tired, or too stressed out. In the end, the only solution is to write despite my fatigue and steal whatever minutes I can, even if it’s at 1 A.M. in the morning on a school night.
I came across a quote from one of my favorite professors, Rodney Morales. It took him six years to finish his novel, and in an interview, he cited career as part of the reason: “I don’t think you can be a good teacher, writing all the time.” This makes sense, but at the same time, I’d like to argue that I can’t be a good teacher if I’m unhappy or depressed either. There is something wonderfully uplifting about working on something you love–something that is just for you and no one else.
I don’t want to spend six years on this novel. I was actually disappointed that I didn’t finish it in a year, which was my personal deadline for the project. But now it’s mid-January and much to my chagrin, I haven’t written anything new since early December. The only thing I can do is keep stealing moments of happiness, where and when I can get it. The tap is still running, but at least I’m trying to drink it down as fast as I can.
Appropriate Keane song of the day: “She Has No Time”
I don’t know if I agree with your professor. Lots of folks (especially university professors, as “publish or perish” is that profession’s mantra) manage to write and hold down a day job. They don’t all suck at their jobs. Probably the most famous example of this is Wallace Stevens who was an insurance executive, even after he became a established (and Pulitzer Prize winning) poet.
The fact is, most people can’t make a living on writing alone, but if you want to write, you can’t use your regular job as an excuse not to write.
Great point. I guess in my mind, it’s just a question of which one is going to get the lion’s share of your passion and attention. I remember reading a review of “Mr. Holland’s Opus” that pointed out that his “opus” in the end was pretty mediocre. Can you be equally devoted to both your job and your art, and excel equally at them? I don’t know. One might argue the fictitious Mr. Holland was a great teacher and only an average composer. But if he had put in more time for his music (and less for his job and family) would he have been a great composer and just an “okay” teacher and husband/father?