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The Bottom Line

Friday, November 20, 2015

I recently took a business class. I know—that seems completely out of character, but try to get past that for a moment.
The instructor started by asking if any of the students had their own businesses. A couple of them did, and while I was tempted to join them, I held back. I suspected that they wouldn’t consider my writing to be a real business (even if the IRS does). The instructor asked each of the responding proprietors if they considered themselves to be successful. They did. He then followed up with questions that tried to better define their ideas of what constituted “success.” No matter how they responded, he managed to reduce the idea of success to just one aspect: increased revenue.
I sat back in my chair, relieved to discover that resisting the opportunity to join in had been the right move. For one thing, reducing what I do, as a writer, to the accumulation of “increased revenue” would either be laughable or severely depressing. There was no way that the class, or its instructor, could possibly think that my “business” was successful. What could I possibly gain by exposing myself to such ridicule? And yet, I do consider my writing business to be successful. How would I have been able to explain that seeming incongruity?
Perhaps (since I’m a writer) I might employ a metaphor. Consider two hypothetical travelers: both need to get from Point A to Point B. 
For one traveler, the destination is everything. Using the most efficient available means of transport makes sense for that traveler, because the trip is just an inconvenient delay that must be endured before arrival at Point B. Anything that renders the trip uneventful is preferred (because “events,” by their very nature, are distractions). We’ve seen many such travelers at airports; their tiny carry-ons allowing them to zip through TSA screening, and avoid needlessly waiting for luggage to arrive at their destination. They look straight ahead, as if their goal was almost visible, just over the horizon. If our first traveler does not reach Point B, then the trip is a failure.
Our other hypothetical traveler also needs to get to Point B, but the destination isn’t the only consideration. Instead of flying from airports, all of which are as mind-deadeningly identical as a mall, this traveler prefers to take to the road. Cars, bicycles, or hiking boots are the preferred modes of transportation. This traveler’s eyes are on the horizon too, but also along both s ides of the road, into the woods, and up and down each river that is crossed. 
Whereas one traveler wishes to deny the existence of the distance between two points, the other want to experience every bit of it. For the second traveler, the trip is not an inconvenient delay in attaining the goal, it is part of the goal. If the second traveler doesn’t get to Point B, it would not be a failure, because the trip itself had provided rewards all along the way.
Efficiency drives one traveler, experience drives the other. 
Rather than extend the metaphor far beyond its breaking point, let’s just agree that the point of most businesses is the acquisition of money—money that, presumably, can be used to pay for whatever makes the business owner happy. So, in a sense, the business itself is an inconvenience that stands between one and one’s goal.
For me, every part of the writing process makes the trip worth it: the original concept, the research, the blocking out and subsequent re-arranging of the parts, the search for the right combination of words, the surprise when a near-synonym reveals additional unexpected insight, overcoming difficulties along the way, re-working the piece’s to clarify its argument, even the dialogue with readers who find unintended meanings I hadn’t known were there—both good and bad. 

This writing “business” could, in theory, be used to fund some other desired reward—but that would just be an extra perk. Obviously, I prefer to be paid for my work but, even when I don’t get a check, the writing itself pays me. It all comes down to semantics and varying definitions of “business” and “success”—differences that would probably be nonsensical to the instructor and everyone else in that classroom.


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