The Calling, or: A Writer’s Work Is Never Done

I’m pretty sure I found my new favorite movie.

Last weekend I watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi.  Without getting too involved with the description and thus butchering the beauty and simplicity of this man’s life, I’ll just share the trailer (although truthfully, this trailer doesn’t do the film much justice either).

Perhaps this film resonated with me because I can remember those modest restaurants that conducted business in Osaka’s underground shopping streets.  Or because I have parents who are small business owners whose eyes don’t stop looking towards the horizon.  The thing they have in common is this understanding that there is always something new to learn, another step to refine, more ways to improve upon the skills you already have.

When I was in high school, my classes were dismissed at 12:30 every Friday.  It was too late for me to run around the corner to take a kung fu lesson with my dad, but I would meet him every week for sushi.  We would go to a little restaurant on Beacon Street that had a great lunch special.  I’d order a can of ginger ale and drink it with a straw.  We would eat before he returned home and I left for some little adventure with my friends.

I can remember one afternoon, he told me he heard some Chinese proverb that it took 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of a skill.  I was a Senior, applying to college, feeling hopeful about my future.  At the time, I had aspirations to become a writer-filmmaker-photographer-theatre director–and maybe even open my own production company some day.  I listened to what he said, and started doing mental calculations to see what 10,000 hours equated to in days.

I couldn’t figure out the math.

Later, when I was a Junior in college, my boyfriend introduced me to an English professor he respected very much.  I should say teacher, he didn’t have a PhD, but he became somewhat of a legend around the UMass campus.  The students in his class, many of whom wouldn’t readily identify themselves as readers, walked away from his class with a completely new outlook on literature, and life.

My boyfriend introduced me as a writer, and the teacher raised his eyebrows.

“Oh really,” he smiled.  “Would you say that it’s your calling?”

This question took me by surprise.  Most people would follow-up that statement with– What do you write about?  Or, What genre?  No one had the guts to ask such a question, and I never really thought about it.

By then, I understood that to become a better writer, I had to focus on the writing itself and not the other ways of telling a story through movies and photos and comic books.  I had to put my other interests aside to make way for the craft that felt most natural to me.  In my heart, I wanted to shout, “YES!  THIS IS MY CALLING!  THIS IS WHAT I WAS BORN TO DO!” but I felt like to make such a statement was too arrogant.

I told him, “I guess I’m not sure.”

“If you aren’t sure, then it isn’t your calling,” he replied.

Watching  Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it was exceedingly clear that Jiro’s purpose was his craft.  He worked and practiced and taught his apprentices and ate and dreamed about sushi.

I felt envious of this man and this task that became his life’s work.

How simple it must be, to wake up early and to buy fresh fish and to sharpen your knives and cook some rice and make some maki day after day after day.

Not like being a writer, which involves trying to paint in the imagination.

Of course, I felt a little ashamed of myself to begrudge the world’s leading sushi chef, and frankly, this cute older gentleman.  Who am I to judge what is fair, and not?  I don’t know what sacrifices he had to make or the hard times he had to endure to become the man he is today.

And this makes me think that maybe there isn’t such a thing as a calling.  There is talent, but talent alone isn’t enough.  It also requires discipline, dedication, resilience.  To be a master, you are not simply the vehicle for your talent, but you possess the skills to control your talent.  And that takes work.

It makes me think of the August Wilson quote I used to write on the front page of my journals:

“Most writers ignore the very thing that would get them results, and that’s craft.  And how do you learn craft?  In the trenches.  You’ve got to do it.  You got to get in there, you got to write.  I say write and then write and write and write some more and go write some more. Charles Johnson is a friend of mine in Seattle.  Charles threw away 2500 pages!  It blows me away to this day.  I said, How many?  That’s like 10 books, just to get that one.  And that’s work, but he wasn’t afraid to do the work.  And that’s how you learn it, in the trenches.  Do it, do it, do it.”

I have found that my work, as a writer, is never done.  I may put down my pen, but I can’t stop making connections or noticing on-going themes.  I step into the shower and try to find just the right words to describe the feel of the water dripping down my back.  When I sit on the train, I see the other passengers and I know they have their own stories, their own callings, their own dreams that are just as important as mine.

All day, every day.

Do it, do it, do it.