Martin Eden, a retired sailor, lived in Oakland, California in the early 1900’s. Despite his lack of education and working class roots, Martin was determined to become a published author. He was also determined to marry Ruth, a beautiful and highly educated woman from a wealthy family.
Martin proposes and Ruth accepts. But Ruth puts off the wedding until Martin becomes successful enough to win her family’s acceptance. He works hard, submits manuscripts, gets rejected by publishers, but eventually, he gets a book deal.
Then Martin blows up, makes a fortune off his books, and becomes a celebrated member of the artistic class.
Unfortunately, his success came a little too late for Ruth. Though he already submitted the manuscripts that would make him rich and famous, she loses patience with his progress, and after two years Ruth breaks the engagement.
Nursing his broken heart, Martin has trouble enjoying his status as a successful writer. His fiancee and several publishers rejected him long after he had completed the work that eventually made him the toast of the town. Martin spirals downward, despite his fame and fortune.
He obsesses over his earlier rejections because they came after the “work already performed” that led to his success. He cannot reconcile the fact that he was the same person who had performed the work, but those around him would not accept or reward him until well after the fact.
Increasingly bitter about his rejection by love and society, Martin, the former sailor, drowns himself at sea. He repeats the phrase, “Work Already Performed!” over and over as he ends his life.
The Real Martin Eden
Fortunately, as bleak as this story is, Martin Eden is a work of fiction. The great American writer Jack London authored it at the age of 33, well after achieving international acclaim with his classic works The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and To Build a Fire. Interestingly, London himself became disenchanted with his success, and left civilization to sail the South Seas for a couple years. Then at the very young age of 40, Jack London died of an “accidental morphine overdose.”
To many folks, that meant that the disillusioned writer Jack London, like the disillusioned fictional writer Martin Eden before him, committed suicide.
But what’s really strange was my reaction to Martin Eden. I first read it some 20 years ago. I rooted for the character to enjoy his success and find something to live for. At the same time, I was jealous of this doomed young man. Why? Work Already Performed. Martin did his work. His rewards came in due course. Me? Not so much. I had no Work Already Performed, so I could not expect to see any reward.
Work Already Performed
That phrase haunted me for years, until I finally began to produce my creative work. I was never in danger of drowning myself. But I did feel despair over not completing a body of work.
But even if I never got the big publishing deal, I think I’d be okay. Unlike Martin Eden, I could live with myself as long as I had work already performed.
My torture was not being able to perform my work. A powerful mixture of perfectionism, self-doubt, and procrastination kept me from it. But now that I am performing, I expect to die of very natural causes, many, many years from now.
How bout you? Do you have Work Already Performed? Congratulations if you do, and don’t worry, your rewards will come. So don’t lose heart and do something rash.
But if you don’t, you’d better get busy…