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Why Don’t I Feel Lucky, answered by Murasaki Shikibu


Dear Badass,

I went to a really good school for creative writing and I’m so proud of the writer I’ve become. I knew it meant that I would have to do some form of non-writing work to try to pay off my debts as I write my first book. I’m so aware that I should be grateful I found an actual, salary-paying job. I just didn’t know I’d hate it so much. I’m an assistant in an advertising agency and everyone around me is so intense about what they’re doing. I couldn’t care less and, anyway, it’s not like I’m writing pitches. I’m doing schedules and booking flights and filing expense reports. I’m so miserable that I’m finding it hard to write when I get home. I just want to go out drinking with my friends. What do I do?

Why Don’t I Feel Lucky?

Dear Why Don’t I Feel Lucky,

You have a right to feel what you feel. It sounds as if you are trying to erase your unhappiness with the knowledge of your fortune. You may be able to find a balance by meditating on all that opposes your current discomfort, but you must cease to try to convince yourself that you are happy. Lying to yourself can only dull your senses.

Everything that I love in my work came from my sensitivity. I could describe the soul of a character or the heartbreak of an instant through a single image because I took in everything around. My poems, especially the ones I traded with Lady Koshosho, were a game of evocation through details. I spent much of my life in my father’s home because he understood and protected that part of me.

Empress Shōshi invited me to her court because she admired my writing and, in truth, I do not know how else I would have been given the paper or the time to travel all the places my Tale of Genji would go. Like you, I knew I must be grateful for the rare honor. I loathed it. The men of the court behaved like drunken bears, crashing through paper walls and pawing at delicate wrappings. Some of the women of the court were so beautiful it seemed like moonlight had been poured into a slender body and encased in the deepest silk. Some of the women, however, were vicious and stupid. Worse, the ladies of the rival empresses never ceased to peck at each other.

I could not leave. It would shame my father and my daughter to refuse an Empress. It might even endanger them, with the ministerial branch of the Fujiwara playing their cutthroat political games. I was too quiet for the Empress’ liking, but I was smart enough to know there were intricate alliances all around us. I knew, too, that this sprawling story in my head might only leave my pen before I left this life through the opportunity the Empress offered.

I do not know if my answer will be yours, but I offer you my solution. I found a measure of comfort in knowing that I was not tumbling blindly, but had carefully taken the measure of my situation and found the safest course. Most importantly, I did not seek to close off from the noise around me. I used my sensitivity to train my eyes on the court. Each interaction, each person in my sphere, in some way informed my writing. I was privileged to see a lifestyle few could imagine. I recorded it in my diary and filtered it into my book.

What if you knew that your job would inform your work? You say you do not care for your job, but you also say there are many around you who do. How often will you have the opportunity to dispassionately watch people pursue something passionately? Each person you encounter through your job has a story for you to find. How do you know which one will inspire you until you look?

A word more and I will lay down my pen in the hopes that you will take up yours. It is a particular joy to spend time with friends, but mind that you seek joy, not oblivion. Alcohol can be a celebration or a shared relaxation. In large or daily amounts, however, it can dull the very emotions that you will need to call upon to complete your book. You have sacrificed to become a writer. You now must dedicate your time and energy to write.

Muraski Shikibu

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Born sometime around 975 A.D. to scholar and minor official Fujiwara no Tametoki, likely in the imperial capital of Kyoto. Died sometime before 1031 A.D. of unknown causes. Though her real name has been lost to history, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji was revered in her lifetime and is now known to historians worldwide as the first novel. She likely began it around the time of her husband’s death in 1001 and circulated chapters as she finished them. She attended one of two rival empresses and with her support, not only finished her sprawling epic but wrote a diary and a collection of 128 memory poems, both of which provide a wealth of detail of life in the Heian court.