Life And Work

A cool windy day as I dash this off outside in Banyeo, a distant suburb of Busan, an extension of the city’s vast cement tentacles which was nonexistent to me until about two weeks ago. Sometimes Napoleon fought with so many hundreds of thousands of soldiers that he would forget entire legions, hidden behind the hills on his flanks; it is impossible for the mind to grasp the endlessness of Busan, even if at the same time, for the most part, by walking one street in this city, you’ve walked them all. The array of restaurants, academies, convenience stores, and hospitals repeats itself in new patterns that always follow the same general tasteless theme of gaudy neon and plastic and concrete almost wherever you look. In Banyeo there is a little more greenery, and incredible numbers of high-rise apartment tenements stacked alongside one another like enormous dominos. Otherwise Banyeo is indistinguishable from the rest of Busan.

There is a new development in my life I want to talk about. I feel content with my work. I feel happy and satisfied when I leave my apartment and head out to earn money. The idea that this could happen never once occurred to me. There is actually a kind of thrill, now, in teaching or tutoring very small groups of students for astronomical sums of cash; I can feel my enthusiasm for the language infecting them, and this feeling from them re-infects me again, and bounds into them, and into me, back and forth, until the hours come to a quick close and I walk away with quite a bounce to my stride—smiling, happy, satisfied, content. I work for myself, and my family; our lives improve, and I begin to think of myself as actually having a career.

A few months ago I would have believed this feeling to be impossible. A philosopher once said that any work done for money was fundamentally evil, a sacrifice of your time to the gods of greed and base necessity; I believed that work was something to be gotten over with as quickly as possible so that I could return to the real work of imagining entire universes out of nothingness. And from looking at the jobs on my resume, you really can’t blame me for thinking that way; dish-washing and herding cats in a Korean public school are both not the most exemplary occupations, but most of my working adult life was spent that way. Teaching literature to college students and gardening were brief reliefs from all that drudgery.

And at the same time writing has hardly changed at all—it’s still just as much of a struggle as ever, with the same incredible mounting self-doubts, and the same total lack of payoff (beyond the reward of writing by itself). I can write for hours and hours and feel even more dissatisfied and disappointed than when I began; I never stop because I feel as if I’ve written enough, I only stop because I’m distracted by something else.

Little has changed, regarding writing. The titanic struggle to publish an ebook was fruitless thanks to unknown technical problems, and I’ve put off giving that gauntlet another shot for five or six weeks now, although I will eventually give it another go; I have spent an incredible portion of my life writing, and beyond some prize money I have not earned a single cent from doing so, and hardly a wink of recognition or even acknowledgment from anyone—and this blog hardly counts, I’m talking about my book! I write in a void. It is so the opposite of my “career” here, which I feel to be advancing by leaps and bounds month by month—writing, by contrast, is a stagnant plod through an endless field of tar.

Because so few people even recognize the fact that I am writing at all, and because the accolades of my handful of readers are so generous and at the same time so general, and because their criticism is more or less nonexistent (the greatest artists often being the subject of the most savage attacks), I have only dug myself deeper into that tar pit; my writerly self-doubt has assumed monstrous proportions, where everything I compose is utterly weak, meaningless, worthless, and beneath the gods whom I love to read; I do not know where to go, what to say, or how to say it; all this at the same time as my confidence as a teacher grows and grows, as my love for my nascent family (which I also thought I would never have) deepens.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing, but until now I had never thought I could live a happy and content life without struggling to compose literature.

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