Life's Little Problems
I like a good problem. I wouldn’t have characterized myself in this way for much of my life, but I see now that it was always true. Do I enjoy a puzzling math problem? Mmm, not so much, but problem-solving goes beyond an aptitude for mathematics or science or technology. It applies just as well to what have been two great passions in my life: music and literature.
One thing I like right away is that there are two sides to such disciplines. You can listen to music, as we all do, and you can create music. You can read books, and you can write them. But drilling a little deeper, we quickly see that not all music is created equal. Nor are all novels, poems, short stories, and screenplays. It’s fallen out of fashion to rate art for quality. Everything is subjective, if you believe the loudest voices on social media, for instance. But you and I know better. There are quality markers that defy opinion, and my sense is that the degree to which a work has been treated as a problem to be solved plays a hand in such assessments.
Nothing brings this home more acutely than trying your own hand at writing a song or story. You can lie to the world about what you’re up to, but you can’t lie to yourself. Either you're tapping into a tradition that has descended to us from such masters as Bach and Shakespeare, or you are stroking your ego and hoping to fool enough people to make your artistic crimes pay off. When I compose a good line, whether of notes or words, I immediately feel it wanting to connect to something. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. In early drafts or versions, maybe I’m mostly amassing the puzzle pieces, but by the time finality meanders into my sights, it’s time to start making sure they all fit in their proper places, and that every space has its piece.
Work that has been conceived in this way can be discerned by spectators. I’d argue that problem-solving shows itself even in work you might not appreciate as fitting in with your tastes. A cohesion has been earned. A design has been wrought. A problem has been solved. This is only one of the attractions of the arts for me, but it’s a big one. The problem-solving that takes place in music and fiction is special, too, because it serves no practical goal. In most cases it’s not even being placed on the creator’s shoulders by anyone other than himself. He creates the problem and then goes about solving it, for no better reason than that he believes it has enough potential beauty and entertainment value to justify bringing it into the world.
It’s possible to find interesting problems to solve in more mundane areas, of course. A job that’s a good fit can present such opportunities, but they lack the felicitous lack of purpose that we find in the arts. Still, at the end of the day, I want to have problems to solve and I want to excel at what I do. I tried like hell to make writing be the outlet to accommodate that yearning on a full-time basis. I made a number of sacrifices to that end, in fact. I took jobs that would leave me with enough time and energy to pursue my artistic interests on the side while still providing for my family. But eventually we all have to deal with the biggest problems of them all, those of life, reality, and death.
I’m in a good place, on the one hand. I’ve recently found myself in a line of work that suits me–and it’s important to have meaningful work that pays the bills when you’re an artist of any kind–but it’s a demanding job. Eventually, as the job becomes second nature, I’ll be able to bring music and fiction writing back into my daily routine, but I’ve had to take a break from those pursuits. That’s okay. It’s been a calculated transition into a more satisfying day job as I face the reality of my age and accomplishments head on. In all likelihood, fiction and music will not provide me with a living wage. I’m in my fifties now. It's time to get real. The creative urge will always run in my veins, but going forward it answers to me, not the other way around.
I don’t mean to make it sound as if I have no creative outlets currently. Yes, my job uses me up pretty thoroughly for the time being, but I still pick up my acoustic guitar from time to time. I also write professional strategy articles for Casual Game Insider magazine. This is an immensely enjoyable way for me to keep my hand in the writing game, and get paid for it. It also satisfies the problem-loving side of my nature. CGI’s editor sends me a tabletop game, and I have a month to make sense of it, become decent at playing it, and formulate a 1,500-word article that helps readers strategize their own success, while my wife provides photographs that illustrate various strategies and pitfalls.
This is all to say that life itself is a problem, very much like the specific problems I’ve been discussing. It starts with a simple phrase, perhaps whispered into your mother’s ear on some long-ago night in the form of a loving entreaty from your future father. Eventually you emerge into the world, which starts to make something of you, given the raw material it has to work with. It’s unknown to everyone what you’ll end up becoming, but you start out as a problem–maybe your parents’ problem every bit as much as your own for many years, but eventually yours and yours alone.
And round and round and round it goes. Is there meaning to any of it in the end? Probably not. But that’s not really the point. The point is to keep ourselves occupied and avoid too much staring into the abyss. Solving problems is a great way to do that. If I have to wait until retirement to start creating my own delightful problems full time, so be it. I can at least make sure I don't let myself fall too far out of practice between now and then.