Learning to Love My Fate

Printed in the  Summer 2021  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Grinnell, Dustin"Learning to Love My Fate " Quest 108:3, pg 25-28

By Dustin Grinnell

dustin grinnellFor more than a decade, I’ve worked as a writer for American organizations. I’m good at the work and have found a niche. But I have increasingly started to feel as though I am little more than a propagandist for business and nonprofits. In these jobs, where I often work within marketing departments, nothing I write is entirely truthful. Rather, everything is crafted and spun to promote a service, product, or brand.  

For example, my writing for a hospital often involves interviewing patients and writing articles to “tell their stories.” After I develop an article about a patient’s experience, a team of marketers weighs in on my draft to edit, spin, and sterilize it in order to project the best possible image of the hospital. While the team’s edits don’t inject overt lies into the stories, they do omit any potentially negative aspects. As such, the published stories are based on real events but are far from genuine depictions.

During the coronavirus pandemic, I wrote many patient stories and articles designed to portray the hospital as safe to visit. These “don’t delay your care” stories were sophisticated attempts to influence the behavior of consumers seeking medical care. It was true that the hospital had been vigilant in implementing safety measures to limit the spread of the virus and safeguard both patients and staff. Therefore I could do the work and sleep at night.

Still, I was becoming discontented with writing marketing copy. I also had the sense that people were picking up on my cognitive dissonance. In the past four years, two employers have offered me new copywriting positions with more responsibility and higher salaries, but I turned them down because of my growing dissatisfaction with a copywriting career. A year later, I interviewed for two more jobs, but came in second each time. Was my evolving self-image obvious to employers? They likely saw that I could fulfill the duties of the job, but could they also see that I thought of myself as a corporate hack? Perhaps they sensed I was conflicted about my place in the world and might be uncomfortable churning out sales material. Why would an employer hire someone with such a “bad attitude”?

In high school and college, I wanted to become a doctor. Scoring poorly on the entrance exam for medical school, I pivoted to graduate school in order to become a scientist. When I realized that the traditional scientific path wasn’t for me, I committed myself to writing about science—but never once did I envision myself as someone who would spin science and medicine for profit. Whenever someone learns that I work in marketing, I feel ashamed.

Nevertheless, I’ve been employed in marketing departments for ten years now, among people whose values I don’t share. Many of my coworkers majored in marketing in college, and most of them have spent time in advertising agencies. Proficient bureaucrats, they constantly jockey for advancement and scheme for power, always preoccupied with self-preservation. Because they scrutinize everything I write, I’m at the mercy of people I’m not particularly fond of.

My disenchantment with writing marketing copy grew in my early thirties, as I began to write more essays and fiction. At thirty-five, I enrolled in an MFA program in creative writing. There I wrote my third novel, several short stories, and a handful of essays. During our program’s ten-day writing residencies, I spent time with other writers who were passionate about writing and storytelling, and it was thrilling to compare notes. Following my growing interest in the arts and humanities, I read biographies and watched documentaries about sculptors, filmmakers, and writers. As I read and watched, I tried to comprehend how these artists had mastered their craft and gained prominence. Increasingly, all I wanted was to spend my time creating art, just like the people I was studying.

I also came to admire journalists, especially independent journalists like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald, who aren’t afraid to speak truth to power. I’m inspired by movies like Spotlight, State of Play, and All the President’s Men, which depict reporters “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” and prove that journalists make a difference in the world. I never miss 60 Minutes and find journalists like Bill Whitaker and Lesley Stahl to be true heroes, taking on major issues for the benefit of the public.

I sometimes fantasize about writing for a newspaper or magazine full-time, but whenever I apply for a journalism job, I get no response. I’ve wondered if the Fourth Estate looks at marketing writers like me with suspicion. Perhaps I’m too subjective, too personal, or too imaginative for traditional journalism.

Over the years, my admiration has grown for creative writers with an activist spirit. One such writer is Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, a book that sounded the alarm on pesticides and sparked an environmental movement in the 1960s. After poring over studies about the effects of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) on wildlife and the environment, Carson said, “What I discovered was that everything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more important.”

Carson went to work in a time of great need, as all artists must do. Scientists had known about the problem of harmful chemicals, and the public had its suspicions, but it took an artist like her to change minds by turning scientific complexity into lyrical prose. Carson pioneered a novel way of writing about science that cut through the statistics and figures. She made people not only think but feel.

Since I am a writer of marketing material, my affection for Carson likely comes from the fact that her work is unbiased and pure, a far cry from the selling and spinning I do on a daily basis. Perhaps I admire journalists like Taibbi and Greenwald because they also write about subjects that matter. In my role as a hired gun for corporations, I often wonder whether the web pages, marketing articles, and promotional videos I develop are adding up to anything at all. Do people even read the stuff we dump onto the Internet? Does this content matter? What good does my work in my day job do in the world?

As I find myself called to a more artistic path, I’ve started to see my corporate work for what it is: a day job. As I continue to write essays and fiction in my spare time, I’ve started to clearly see how difficult it is to flourish in the world as an artist. It’s not until you devote yourself to creative work that you realize how much life seems designed to knock you down at every stage of your development. Even though the artist plays a vital role in society—as a social conscience who often interprets reality and writes about how (and why) to live—many individuals are intolerant of the artist’s flights of fancy. Most people are practical and have better things to do than entertain the artist’s idealism and unrealistic vision of the future. Most adults seem to want to gain enough money to keep themselves and their families healthy, maybe to catch a movie or a ballgame or host a barbeque. Most can’t seem to fathom why anyone hasn’t figured out their life by their thirties. Indeed, it’s often embarrassing to admit that I’m still struggling to find my place in the world.

A young artist also learns that making art, especially in the early stages, isn’t a path to riches. One needs money to pay rent and buy food; hence developing artists live in limbo between the practical world of commerce and the dreamy, sometimes subversive spaces where they produce their work. Young artists must play the game. They contribute to the world’s affairs while working a day job that exploits their talents for profit. The artist might long to be free, but he must rely on the capitalistic machine for financial security, perhaps wounding his dignity in the process.

If society is set up this way, why not leave the workforce and live cheaply while writing essays and fiction? I tried that for a year and ran out of money, realizing that a day job supports me in growing and learning my craft. Plus, moving to a cabin in the woods to live the life of a “true artist” may not be the solution for my existential dilemmas. First of all, a day job, it turns out, provides grist for the mill. The “real world” is a mess, but it can be a big, beautiful mess and can often be the source of stories. Moreover, while it can sometimes be disheartening to work in the corporate machine, it can also be thrilling to be part of this world and its everyday affairs. In the modern-day office, I occasionally feel like an actor on the world’s stage, playing a small part in the grand theater of life.

Though it might sound counterintuitive, I sometimes feel drawn to the absurdity of bureaucratic systems, which I can challenge and try to fix. In my current day job, I’m in the big, beautiful mess, solving business problems. Rather than developing theories in the halls of academia, I prefer to apply philosophical concepts to real-world problems. Every once in a while, I even find myself trying to elevate the banal conversations around the office by sometimes asking “big questions” in the most palatable way: through humor. In the office kitchen, there’s nothing quite as amusing as dryly asking a question like, “Why do so many of us die without ever learning how to live?” while your coworker adds half-and-half to their coffee.

There’s also something comforting about being anchored to the hustle and bustle of civilization through a day job. When I was freelancing for a year and mostly living off savings, I felt unmoored from the happenings of the world. I was following my dreams to write creative nonfiction and fiction, but I was a man without a cause, and I spun out because of it. I often wonder if that’s why the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche descended into madness toward the end of his life, much of which he spent as a nomadic explorer of the human condition in place of the teaching post he’d had for several years.

While a day job can sometimes be a hard pill to swallow, it can provide a ready-made purpose each day that helps keep my feet on the ground as I navigate my uncertain creative life. Perhaps most importantly, a day job also provides the budding artist with security, freeing the mind from worry over money. Feeling safe and secure—as much as one can in a human life—fuels writing projects. I’ve found that I can’t create art if I’m fretting over my bank account. During the year that I wasn’t working a traditional nine-to-five job, I didn’t write a word of fiction. Instead, I wrote news reports and marketing copy—stuff that pays (though not much).

Furthermore, being productive and creative in my staff writing job often breeds inspiration and efficiency in my creative writing. I have many examples of times when I fictionalized circumstances from my job.

Why am I so ungrateful toward corporations? Most of my employers have supported my career development. They’ve mentored me, paid for me to attend conferences and workshops, and bought me meals while traveling. Moreover, without the money from my salary, I wouldn’t be able to move my creative projects forward. I reinvest a lot of my money into hiring editors, designers, illustrators, videographers, website developers, even writers. The salaries from my day jobs have given me the freedom to be creative on the side.

Why do I perceive working for corporations as an exploitation of my skills? Why can’t I see it as my duty as a citizen? In his book Meditations, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius said that he got himself out of bed each day by reminding himself that many people were relying on him. It was his duty to show up for work. Couldn’t I look at my day job similarly? Why not make some commercial art by day while writing essays and fiction on the side? It’s a rather privileged position in society: many people would love a full-time writing job like mine. Perhaps I should try to be grateful for what I have instead of criticizing my place in the world and always striving for more.

Moreover, if I can maintain a high level of production in my creative life while holding down a corporate job, am I already doing what I should be doing? Do I already have what I want? Have I already arrived, so to speak? Then again, how many commercial writers like me toil away at day jobs and never break through with their more artistic work? Is this a matter of talent or luck? Or do some people give up too soon? For me, writing is a compulsion, an activity that I find immensely challenging yet rewarding. It is something that gives my life meaning. But how long does it take to break through, and am I willing to wait as long as it takes?

For me, the answer to the latter is yes, but I suppose every evolving artist wonders if it will ever happen for them. Much ink has been spilled about the famous 10,000 hours a person supposedly needs to accumulate to master any given skill. Having started writing seriously in my late twenties, I’m surely close to that mark. Is a breakthrough imminent, or does it differ for each person, as I suspect it does?

I suppose that most creative people never think that their time comes quickly enough. When I got my first copywriting job a decade ago, hoping that the position would help make me become a better writer, I thought I might leave the workforce and write full-time after the publication of my first novel. I thought wrong. Having self-published two novels and now looking for an agent for my third, I know that achieving our dreams doesn’t happen as fast as we’d like.

I’ve found some comfort in reading about the lives of other writers who held down day jobs to support their creative work. Many writers wrote advertising copy before their creative writing took off: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dr. Seuss, and James Patterson come to mind. John Grisham worked as a lawyer for years while he wrote legal thrillers at night. Sam Shem, author of the satirical novel House of God, went to medical school knowing that practicing medicine would be his day job. He wanted to be a writer, but he didn’t want to have to make money from it. Medicine paid the bills.

Author and neurologist Oliver Sacks found a similar dynamic in his life. In fact, some of Sacks’ most fascinating patients became published case studies, which he crafted to read like fiction. A recent documentary about Sacks described him as a writer who “storied” people into the world. Had he retreated to a cabin in the woods to write what he wanted, the world might not have benefited from his observations about the brain and mind and their malfunctions.

Even so, this idea of moving to a cabin in the woods is a romantic notion among those with artistic sensibilities. It captured the imagination of Henry David Thoreau. When he decided to become a writer, he first moved to where all the great writers were—in New York City. But he failed to thrive there. A rugged individualist and a bit rough around the edges, Thoreau wasn’t accepted into the city’s literary society, so he went back to Concord, Massachusetts, where he had lived and grown up. Not long after, he began his great experiment in living at Walden Pond.

So what path am I on? I don’t think it’s the path of the scholar, the educator, or even the journalist. It’s the path of the artist, and the discontent and confusion I feel comes from the fact that there is no set path for the artist. The creative life is one of always making it up as you go. As I work on one creative project after another, it’s tempting to reach for a metaphor that depicts life as an endless struggle without meaning. I could imagine myself like Sisyphus, who was forced to endlessly roll a boulder up a mountain, only to watch it fall to the base. Could I, as Albert Camus did in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” imagine Sisyphus as happy in the absurdity of his situation? Perhaps, but that’s not the metaphor I want to choose for myself. It doesn’t accept the fact that despite my best efforts to roll those boulders happily, I will always be trying to take control.

Instead, the metaphor I choose to guide my life for now is the notion of “loving one’s fate,” as Nietzsche put it—to know that everything that’s happened in my life has contributed to who I am and what I’m doing in this moment, to know that I’m both limited by my circumstances and also free to pursue any project I find meaningful. I’m both restricted by my circumstances and free to try to transcend them. This is the compromise of living a human life.

What if I never write my way out of corporate work? What if I always need a day job? These outcomes may not be entirely within my control. Maybe my proverbial cabin is coming. Maybe I just need to gather more experience before I leave the workforce for good. But maybe not. Only time will tell. Indeed, these questions might not even matter. For now, I accept where I am, who I am, and what I have found myself doing at this time of my life. I will try as best I can to love my fate, because as Nietzsche said, it is my life. 

Dustin Grinnell is an essayist and fiction writer. He has an MFA from the Solstice MFA Program and an MS in physiology from Penn State. His creative nonfiction has appeared in The Boston Globe, The LA Review of Books, Writer’s Digest, and many other popular and literary publications. He lives in Boston, where he is a full-time copywriter for Bose Corporation.

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