So my question is: Is it more creative to write a novel or solve real-world problems? Perhaps they’re the same thing, except in one you’re moving around fictional people and in the other the characters are real. The question resonates for me because three times in my life I’ve decided between one and the other: do I step back from life and “create something,” or do I step forward into life and make something with it.
When I graduated from university the choice was whether to stay in New York City and “be a writer” or go to Taipei and study Mandarin Chinese. My father tossed his coin in the Taipei hat. “Be a writer? Good luck,” he said. And about Taipei: “Good for you. Those Taiwanese. They’re really something.” I ignored both things he said and made my decision based on a film: “Defending Your Life,” directed by and starring Albert Brooks and co-starring Meryl Streep. The movie’s message is that the meaning of life is facing your fears. As much as my father wanted to scare me out of being a writer, going to Asia and learning a new language scared me more. Ironically, the first short story I ever completed was about the two years I spent in Taiwan.
Not long after I ended up working in international development. I loved my job. I had never imagined that work could be so creative. For example, early in my career when I was working on HIV prevention in Myanmar, I heard from the gay outreach workers (or “men who have sex with men”) who were working with my NGO that they were being discriminated against on the job. I wrote a 10-page report outlining the problem and showed it to a colleague. “You should show this to the country director. And you’re a really good writer.” I smiled at the second thing she said and acted on the first. The country director said to me, “You think I have time to deal with this? I get a report like this every day. This is why we hired you. You do something about it.” I spent the next week stamping my feet and telling everyone I could that, “People like him are the problem!” I wanted to resign in order to “make a statement” and then go off to a hut in the countryside and write a novel. And I knew doing that would have been easy. Instead I did what was hard for me, and I stepped up to address the problem, convening a workshop with the outreach workers in which they came up with their own solution to the discrimination issue. I didn’t write a novel, but I had been creative.
Years later I moved to Rome to study Italian. I found a great job on an international development project there. And then it happened. Somehow slowly over the years the job you love turns into the job you do. I wrote training manuals and led workshops in the field, but it seemed our work was part of the problem, not the solution. So I looked for somebody to blame. First it was my boss: “People like her are the problem!” Then it was my department: “We’re the joke of the office!” From there it was the whole organization: “We’re the butt of the international development world!” And finally I knew it: “The whole system is wrong!” At that point I left my job to study documentary filmmaking. Which was probably the right thing, because I had lost my perspective and needed to step away. Staying in my job and continuing to undermine my own work—which was what I had been doing—would have been the easy thing to do. Quitting it all to “become an artist” was terrifying. I moved to Venice to study film. I made a documentary about foreigners studying Italian at a school there. The film won a prize. And in making it I learned why exactly I liked living far from home and learning languages. Again I had been creative, and in doing so solved my own real-world problem.
I was on top of the world! I was an artist! I had won a prize! The feeling lasted about five minutes. I made a second documentary and spent a year sending it to film festivals, waiting for an answer I never got. It was time to start working again. As one of my friends said to me, “You can’t go through life waiting for people to give you prizes.” I turned filmmaking into a career and made videos for NGOs. It was real fun for a while. Until somehow, unexpectedly, one day I realized all I was doing was pushing buttons on a camera and my computer. The job I love turned into the job I do. I could see how this could happen when you worked in an office. How many people in an office say they have a novel inside of them and they just don’t have the time or the courage to write it? Yet here I was having proven myself as a filmmaker, and I no longer had the desire to film anything.
Sometimes life gives you a new direction right away. Other times it leaves you in a dark hallway without telling you what time the lights are coming on. I was in that dark hallway for a while. I thought back over my career and all its iterations. What things had I loved the most? It’s embarrassing to say, but I love having a hard time of it. Or as one of my friends in Taiwan had said to me, “You like eating bitterness.” I like solving problems. It’s not so important whether I do that by telling a story or working with real people. And oddly when I set myself at doing one, it often leads me to the other.
Which brings me to my problem-fascination of the moment: how to use filmmaking to solve a storytelling problem and a real-world problem at the same time. I still don’t know what that means, but the struggle to figure it out and start a business around it keeps me up at night with the same wonderful frustration that haunted me as I stayed late in the office writing vivid reports about discrimination in Myanmar, or banged my head against the wall in Venice trying to understand why I loved my documentary so much and yet nobody who saw my latest edit connected with it. Sometimes I just want to throw the whole “start a business” thing away and “get a day job” and write short stories in the park on lunch breaks and on Sunday evenings when I get home from the pub. Still I know that would be the easy way out. So I face my fears and smile when I think that some day I’m going to end up writing a short story about this.