When I’m not writing regularly, I get a little cranky. If I’ve just finished a large project and I’m tired and the well is empty, then, yeah, I’ll take a few weeks or a couple months off. But after that time, I go stir crazy if I’m not working on something.
Why is that? On the one hand, I do feel I was placed on Earth to create (write, photograph, and on the rare occasion, perform my words), so, there’s that Destiny thing. But that’s only part of the puzzle.
After hearing a report on NPR’s Morning Edition this week about a new book entitled Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, I started contemplating the driven life. Here’s the section of Steve Inskeep’s interview with author Linda Gordon about Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange that caught my ear:
STEVE INSKEEP: Was she obsessed with her art?
LINDA GORDON: Absolutely. She had a hard life in many ways. She was a disabled woman. She’d polio at age seven and she ended with a withered, lower right leg and a kind of twisted and crabbed foot. She could not put her heel down as she walked, but she was an incredibly strong woman physically. She could hike for days. She climbed on top of her car to photograph. She was really a very ambitious and driven woman about photography at a time when women were really not supposed to be that way.
INSKEEP: What were the affects of that on her family?
GORDON: Well, when she took this job for the Farm Security Administration, she had to leave her children for long periods of time, even for a couple of months, and Paul Taylor was her partner, as well as her husband. And whenever possible, he was on the road with her.
She knew she sensed as soon as she got this job offer that it was the chance of a lifetime. And she was correct because if it hadn’t been for that federal government job, we would have never have heard of Dorothea Lange.
INSKEEP: Who did take care of her kids when she was gone?
GORDON: She placed them in what we would call foster care, something that was very haunting to her all her life, because her children were very young when she began to do this. But I think we have to understand it in terms of the context of the times, when it was not quite so shocking to use foster care.
INSKEEP: You know, as you describe her personality, I’m reminded of another figure we’re discussing in this American Lives series: Theodore Roosevelt, who was considered a weakling as a child and was driven to great exertion and he was so incredibly ambitious that he left his family behind to go to war even though his wife was ill and he wrote later that he would have left her deathbed. I mean it seems like that same kind of ambition drove Dorothea Lange toward photography.
I’m driven and driven to write. I’ll cop to it. The second and equally powerful piece of my drive – OTHER than the Destiny thing – is that I write to prove my worth. I discovered the depth of that drive when I realized that my last two full-length plays had main characters who were trying to prove their worth through their work – with nearly disastrous consequences. I started to use that theme again on the current full-length I’m outlining but stopped myself when I saw I was doing it again. I’ve consciously chosen a different theme this time ’round.
But can I stop myself from using my writing as a vehicle of self-worth? It’s been my identity since I was in grade school. If I’m not writing, who am I?
I don’t know if my drive is on the scale of Dorothea Lange’s or Teddy Roosevelt’s. I don’t have a club foot and I wasn’t a weakling as a kid. But I have my vulnerabilities, my childhood internal injuries. So I keep writing. The next play, the next piece, is gonna get me that validation I want. Except that it won’t or it’ll go away or I’ll find fault with the script. So I’m back to square one. Except that I’m not because I keep having realizations about who I am and what my motivations are. Just like my characters.