I've asked myself this again and again, as my finances go down the tubes and I wonder why I can't bring myself to stand over a deep-fryer at MacDonald's (because, you see, I'm an old bag with no marketable skills to speak of; writing is what I do best).
These thoughts were prompted by a conversation I had with a good MF at a local watering hole. (Note: I was raised in taverns, because my parents were tavernkeepers in Milwaukee. I learned from a very young age that the best learning comes from such places -- not colleges and universities and overpriced online programs, not seminars and conferences and "retreats". The most trenchant of life's lessons come from ordinary people who are scraping by, doing the best they can to survive. And this was a realization that came to me after I'd earned degrees and worked in the "professional" world.)
Anyway, my MF is in his mid-forties and dyslexic, but a helluva mechanic and carpenter and just plain decent man. He has the opportunity to apply for a job that pays $52k a year, which is a lot around here (and I mean double the average annual income). Only, the job is empty bull-work. None of his interests or skills would be brought into play -- no building or fixing or problem solving, just a lot of driving and humping . . . and not the good kind.
He's very torn about this. He has kids and responsibilities, but he also has a wife who's had an affair and isn't particularly into him anymore. He'd rather, he said, "live like a bum" than bust ass doing something he finds soul-numbing. He craves purpose and challenge and, more than anything, a sense of fulfillment. He also craves appreciation for his efforts. And he has plenty to bring to the table in return for these gifts.
I listened and absorbed.
It got me wondering: What the hell do we tale-spinners have to offer that enriches people's lives? Are we making, or trying to make, a genuine contribution to society or just indulging our egos and/or our sloth? And how do we perceive our contribution? Would society be any worse off if we didn't do what we do? Would we even be missed? (Well, yeah, writers like Nora and Stephen and JRW and LKH and other acronymous bigshots would be missed, no doubt, but what about the rest of us literary gnats?) Should we all be doing something perceptibly and demonstrably useful instead of making up stories?
I suspect most writers are thinking, People need escape from humdrum and sometimes ugly realities. We provide that escape. Indeed we do. BUT . . . couldn't one-tenth of the authors now in existence provide adequate escape? Aren't the rest of us as interchangeable and replaceable as paper clips? Honestly, I sometimes think people would get way more of a bang out of a perfectly executed burger than any book I've written!
Sorry for the existential issue-raising, but I'm genuinely curious about this. I suspect artists throughout history have asked themselves the same questions. How important is it, both personally and socially/culturally, for people to do what they're good at, even if it doesn't yield tangible results like food or widgets or big economic rewards?