When I was a boy, Labor Day was a sad holiday. Not because of whom it celebrated. But because the first day of school was on Tuesday, right afterwards. Labor Day to Memorial Day--that's the way it was in the Old Days before today's longer vacations, teachers' workshop days, standardized testing days, and a few extra days just in case of snow ...
But that's not what got me thinking about Labor Day today. It started yesterday, when, in the "Arts" section of the New York Times I read a short piece by comedian/filmmaker Mike Birbiglia (link to the piece). "Mike Birbiglia's Tips for Making It Small in Hollywood. Or Anywhere" is a piece that arose, he says, because when he was touring with his recent film (Don't Think Twice, which, by the way, has earned terrific reviews--link to film trailer), many people seemed to ask him the same question at every stop: "How do I get started?" This is a question that I've often heard in Q & A sessions with writers, as well.
So Birbiglia gives and expatiates upon six answers: Don't Wait. Fail. Learn from the Failure. Maybe Quit. Be Bold Enough to Make Stuff That's Small but Great. Cleverness is Overrated and Heart Is Underrated.
But as I was reading the piece, what kept resonating with me was the word labor (which, by the way, does not appear in the text). Because what Birbiglia is saying--and showing--is that there's no shortcut to anything really--anything worth doing. There are no "Six Easy Steps to Becoming a Comedian." Or to becoming anything really (okay, maybe a criminal or the like!).
To become a writer, a comedian, a filmmaker, an artist, a scholar, a journalist, a physician, a whatever requires an enormous amount of work. Labor. He talks in the piece about his own efforts--the multiple drafts of routines and scripts he writes, the endless hours of practice, etc. He doesn't sit in the departure lounge at the airport and zip off a routine he will deliver when the plane lands.
This is a message that has come across to me countless times in the many biographies of writers I've read. Successful/Important writers need more than a gift; they need a work ethic. (And, of course, some luck.) They need to read books as if words were oxygen (which, of course, they are); they need to write as if words were food and water (which, of course, they are). They need to ... labor.
And so today let's celebrate laborers of all sorts everywhere (of course!), but let's also celebrate those who have figured out that working hard is the only way to work. The only way to have even a chance of achieving what you dream.