What Makes Work Meaningful
My brother’s job is saving people’s lives.
He’s a nurse in an intensive care unit, so I mean that pretty literally. When it comes to “meaning” something, there’s no question that what he does matters on the most primal and obvious scale, which is that of human life.
I could not say that about myself. In fact, I could not even begin to approach it.
I’m a writer. Measured on the scale of life, the work that I do falls somewhere around a flat zero. I’ve never saved somebody. I’ve never drafted legislation that worked to elevate whole populations out of extreme poverty. I’ve never invented a machine that converts carbon into a renewable energy source. If we’re talking about direct impact, the most that I’ve done, on any given day, is to have loved somebody well - and even that claim could be called into very serious question.
Yet still, I write.
“What makes work matter?” a friend asked me recently, as we strolled an opening in downtown Los Angeles. This question comes up all the time, but this year, in 2017, it arrives with what feels like an unprecedented level of urgency. Around us, the world is shifting in a collective tide toward resistance. There are abundant opportunities to participate; innumerable, alleged pathways toward “making a difference.” Writing books, making art - heck, looking at art - making music, or doing anything other than agitating for a more equitable political future, feels suddenly frivolous.
What makes work matter? “I don’t know anymore,” I said to my friend. But later, I had a different thought: our sense of urgency was false. The threat had always existed. And despite it, people had always written. They had always made art, played music, heard music, and otherwise dedicated themselves to the continuous process that is culture. I suspect that these two truths do not exist independently of each other. (I also suspect that I am not the first to have thought so.)
What makes work matter?
A few weeks after the art show, I exchanged emails with a friend who had landed a book deal - she would be writing a memoir, about the death of her father. “This work feels too selfish,” she lamented. “How will this book matter now?”
Writing her back, all I could say was: “Your work will matter, as long as it’s truthful.”
What I meant was: the personal does not necessarily exclude the universal. And personal truths, once you discover them, tend to endure - not because of the moment they arrived in, but because they’re so fundamental. People enjoy, even feel saved, by that sensation of recognition. It is meaningful.
When I was barely 23, I spent a rainy afternoon browsing the stacks at Bluestocking Books in lower Manhattan, acutely depressed about an unraveling relationship. I found a funny-looking volume, slim, cover depicting a woman in a crass teenage sprawl, the font must have been Comic Sans-ish. It was a decidedly ugly book, which made me open it up.
Four hours later, I had finished the thing. It was the memoir of a queer poet, a then-unknown Eileen Myles, whose machine-gun prose was terse and brilliant and funny, and for the first time I thought that I had found a person who really felt like me. I felt identified.
The moment was impossibly small, drowned inside of a New York that never stopped happening, but still - it mattered so much. Perhaps the most meaningful work that a writer can do is to simply continue, understanding that what they’re leaving behind is, at best, a kind of valuable evidence: “You are not alone.”
That has not changed, even in 2017. At the art show, my friend waved her hand at the walls: “Maybe it matters because… isn’t this what we’re fighting for?” she asked. “When we try to save the world, isn’t this what we’re talking about?”
I remembered something my brother had told me: a patient’s first request, after being discharged, is often a piece of their favorite music. In our weekly phone calls, he summarizes the lives he has saved and lost. I understand that the metric for meaning in his work is very 1-1: Somebody lives. Somebody dies. Creative work can be measured by an instrument far less binary. When it’s successful, it’s because it has produced a type of meaning that remains flexible across generations - ready to rise up when it’s called upon, but forgiving for having been shelved, no matter how long. It’s a meaning made of change and profound endurance.
Recently, I stuck a single post-it note on the wall above my computer. On it I wrote: “Make your work truthful.”
It’s a meaningful reminder.