Tag Archives: work

Emile Zola on the Destructive Power of Creative Work

French Naturalist Émile Zola (1840-1902) is one of my favorite authors. His most autobiographical novel, L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece), one of the books in his Rougon-Macquart series, provides insight into Zola’s relationship with his childhood friend, Paul Cézanne. In this excerpt novelist Pierre Sandoz, representing Zola, speaks to his friend, obsessed painter Claude Lantier, representing Cézanne:

“I, whom you envy, perhaps–yes, I, who am beginning to get on in the world, as middle-class people say–I, who publish books and earn a little money–well, I am being killed by it all…. Listen; work has taken up the whole of my existence. Little by little, it has robbed me of my mother, of my wife, of everything I love. It is like a germ thrown into the cranium, which feeds on the brain, finds its way into the trunk and limbs, and gnaws up the whole of the body. The moment I jump out of bed of a morning, work clutches hold of me, rivets me to my desk without leaving me time to get a breath of fresh air; then it pursues me at luncheon–I audibly chew my sentences with my bread. Next it accompanies me when I go out, comes back with me and dines off the same plate as myself; lies down with me on my pillow, so utterly pitiless that I am never able to set the book in hand on one side; indeed, its growth continues even in the depth of my sleep. And nothing outside of it exists for me. True, I go upstairs to embrace my mother, but in so absent-minded a way, that ten minutes after leaving her I ask myself whether I have really been to wish her good-morning. My poor wife has no husband; I am not with her even when our hands touch. Sometimes I have an acute feeling that I am making their lives very sad, and I feel very remorseful, for happiness is solely composed of kindness, frankness and in one’s home; but how can I escape from the claws of the monster? I at once relapse into the somnambulism of my working hours, into the indifference and moroseness of my fixed idea. If the pages I have written during the morning have been worked off all right, so much the better; if one of them has remained in distress, so much the worse. The household will laugh or cry according to the whim of that all-devouring monster–Work. No, no! I have nothing that I can call my own. In my days of poverty I dreamt of rest in the country, of travel in distant lands; and now that I might make those dreams reality, the work that has been begun keeps me shut up. There is no chance of a walk in the morning’s sun, no chance of running round to a friend’s house, or of a mad bout of idleness! My strength of will has gone with the rest; all this has become a habit; I have locked the door of the world behind me, and thrown the key out of the window. There is no longer anything in my den but work and myself–and work will devour me, and then there will be nothing left, nothing at all!”

Are you obsessed with your creative work? Do you wish you could be satisfied, living day to day without creating? Do you manage to balance your creative work and your life better than Pierre Sandoz? How do you do it?

Excerpt from Zola, Emile (2007-10-22). Works of Emile Zola (20+ Works) Includes The Three Cities Trilogy (Les Trois Villes): Lourdes, Rome and Paris, The Fortune of the Rougons, Nana, The Fat and the Thin and more (mobi) (Kindle Locations 45022-45029) MobileReference. Kindle Edition.

World enough and time

A casual acquaintance once explained how she managed to have the time and resources to paint.

“Painting was my passion,” she said. “I was pretty good, too. Then I had kids, and with my family, my husband, my job, I didn’t paint for years. The kids are grown, I’m retired and my husband encourages me. He even built me a studio. So I paint.”

She shrugged and turned away. “But it’s all gone now.”

That was years ago. As I write this, I feel the same shudder as when she told me.

Yesterday I spent hours looking for contracts for a couple of old published stories. Instead, I found boxes—the kind that holds ten reams of paper—boxes full of my words. Finished and unfinished stories and novels, notes on stories and novels, notes on writing classes and techniques, charts, lists… As I came across each item, I remembered clearly how and when I worked on it. I remembered each idea.

Only a few ideas grew into completed stories and only a few of those stories were published. Why?

Here are a couple of possibilities:

My job’s one deadline after another and I resent carrying that over to my writing.

During my window of opportunity when my kids were little and I wasn’t working full time, my stories began to get published. Then life happened: family member’s serious illness, divorce, demanding new job, bought/lost house, two cross-country moves and more.

These feel more like excuses than reasons, though. Some people overcome much greater difficulties and succeed.

At least I haven’t given up. I’m close. Work and study have improved my writing tremendously.

I’m doing something wrong.

What are you doing right—or wrong?

By S.J. Driscoll