One of my favourite books is The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
His other novels are brilliant too—like Suttree, Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy—but The Road is the only one I’ve read three times.
When I mention the book to friends, they sometimes tell me it was too slow and depressing, and they didn’t finish reading it.
I can see why…
A man and his son are trudging through a post-apocalyptic landscape.
There are only two ways to survive: scavenging for the few scraps of food that are left, or turning to cannibalism.
Most people have chosen the latter. Horrific, blood-curdling scenes unfold as they make their way to the coast in search of salvation. We never learn what the disaster was which caused all this. We don’t even find out the names of the main characters.
The father uses fire as a symbol of hope, to keep his son going in spite of the horrors around them:
“You have to carry the fire.
I don't know how to.
Yes, you do.
Is the fire real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I don't know where it is.
Yes you do. It's inside you. It always was there. I can see it”
And so, despite the seemingly impossible circumstances, the father and his son never lose hope.
They keep going. They keep putting one foot in the front of the other…
Which is why I keep coming back to the book.
And why I've been thinking about The Road this week.
I’ve realised that the concept of burnout isn’t quite right as a metaphor. That it’s wrong to imagine a part of yourself has been completely destroyed.
Because you’ve had the fire since the beginning.
And no matter how bad things get, the fire is still there, smouldering inside you.
When the night comes, when we’re alone in the dark with just our thoughts and fears, the fire is always there for us.
The fire can’t ever be fully extinguished.
Sometimes it feels like it has burnt out, but that’s not the case.
You can always prod the fire, gently breathe oxygen over it, coax it back to life somehow.
So when everything turns to shit and you want to crawl up into a ball and admit defeat, it’s not because you’ve reached the end of the road.
It’s because you’ve forgotten what fuels your fire.
Which means we have to think about another tough question…
What’s worth being burnt for?
What do you care about enough about that you’ll endure the pain? What do you care about enough that you’ll sweat and strain over it until the work is done?
I’m not advocating suffering for the sake of suffering.
But... to give birth to an idea, you have to do the necessary hard work.
There's no way around it.
Which is why when I wrote about creative burnout last week, I deliberately didn’t mention happiness... and talked about the need to define what “meaningful” means to you instead.
Sometimes I chase the wrong things. I think about my dream house, picture myself finally living in that warehouse conversion by the canal.
Deep down, I know that just having the house wouldn’t make me happy. I could sit there, with my feet up on an Eames lounge chair, admiring the beautiful polished concrete floors. But I could still be harbouring the same doubts and insecurities I have now. I could still get lonely. I could still feel like I was missing something.
Maybe “What makes me happy?” is the wrong question in the long run.
And maybe “What will I suffer for?” is a better one.
The artist will live on a shoestring budget to enable her art.
The writer will scribble and scrawl until his words form sentences.
The designer will burn the candle at both ends until she finds the right solution.
(This isn’t just about creating things. Any work can be meaningful, and only you can decide what meaningful means)
Wherever you’re headed, it’s going to be a long journey.
There won’t be many signposts.
There will be times when you feel like giving up.
There will be moments when you’ll feel like you’re completely alone.
So you have to carry the fire.
And remind the people you care about that they are carrying the fire too.
Posted to Uncategorised in 2016.