Have you ever had the experience of stumbling, hesitant, unsure of how to answer the inevitable query: And what do you do? How do you answer? Do you answer that you work as a writer? Or, does linking work with writing make you pause, perhaps confuse you, even irritate, or irk?
Is writing work? Does it qualify? Do we uplift writing if we characterize it as work, or do we belittle it? Can writing be work if, like countless wonderful writers, we are not paid for our writing, or if we are paid what seems an embarrassment given the extent of our labor?
Can writing be work if we labor at a “day job”, run home, scramble a couple eggs, flip through the mail, then hit the computer at 10p, only to awaken the next day with reddened, itchy eyes encircled by grey?
Or, if we scribble our thoughts, as I once did, on old business cards, now sadly out of date, while urging laughing children to finish their milk, and to get to their baths?
It’s hard to believe that acclaimed writers might struggle with how to describe their writing.
But here is award-winning novelist Anne Tyler on writing as work:
I was standing in the schoolyard waiting for a child when another mother came up to me. “Have you found work yet?” she asked. “Or are you still just writing?” Now, how am I supposed to answer that? I could take offense, come to think of it. Maybe the reason I didn’t is that I halfway share her attitude. They’re paying me for this? For just writing down untruthful stories?
Anne Tyler, “Still Just Writing“, http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Writer_on_Her_Work.html?id=CpnlIEbkpNcC
This quote from Tyler on writing comes toward the end of her popular essay, appearing after many paragraphs detailing her persistent, faithful, and sometimes funny efforts to care for her family, raise two kids with love and consistency, all the while stealing moments to produce wonderful novel after wonderful novel.
It is hard enough to assert that one’s writing is “work” when living in a place, like America, seriously attached to the idea that work means money, and that money means work. It becomes even less possible to describe one’s writing as “work” when it is loved and enjoyed, a source of discovery and fulfillment, as necessary to one’s life as breathing and eating. And simultaneously intruded on, broken up and into, slivered into slices of rapidly cobbled idea and product, and generally lost in the detritus of day to day life, unpaid bills, laundry, car pools, and, yes, paying jobs.
This, of course, is a woman’s perspective. But male writers, too, apparently have trouble–perhaps even more–appending the word “work” to their writing. Novelist and essayist Richard Ford tackled the issue in an essay published by The Guardian in 2011.
Ford gives two reasons why he calls writing his work. His first is the simple reason that he’s not sure what else to call what he does. But, later in the essay, he states something more interesting:
Me calling the writing tasks I undertake “work” is just, I’m sure, my effort to have it both ways – the way we writers always prefer it: to have it easy; but also to pawn myself off as a credible working stiff, a wage earner, a guy who has coming to him whatever real work might entitle him to – that modicum of respect, of self-esteem, of legitimacy in a culture where writers don’t really have a comfortable, secure place other than the bestseller list, or some college campus, venues where I haven’t spent much time so far. “Work” is my little assertion that when I do it, I mean it, and would like you to take it and me seriously. Just like a guy who works on the line at Ford, or who delivers babies, or who teaches in the inner city and comes home exhausted. Somebody who gives an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay – even if in my case that’s not always what I do.
I like Ford’s honesty; his admission that his use of the word work to describe his writing activities is his “little assertion”, his declaration, as quiet as it might be, that what he does when he writes he means, takes seriously, and wants to be taken seriously.
Every writer, published or not, paid or not, new or experienced, can relate to this. We all know the quiet pause, the lightning fast sizing up, the look that appears in the eyes of not all, but too many, when we summon our courage to admit that, yes indeed, “what I do is write”.
But, perhaps the most succinct and memorable statement on why one writer viewed his writing as work comes from Russian short story writer and essayist, Isaac Babel. Here is Babel’s marvelous (and remarkably helpful) statement on how hard he worked on his writing:
I work like a pack mule, but it’s my own choice. I’m like a galley slave who’s chained for life to his oar but who loves the oar. Everything about it . . . I go over each sentence, time and again. I start by cutting all the words it can do without. You have to keep your eye on the job because words are very sly, the rubbishy ones go into hiding and you have to dig them out—repetitions, synonyms, things that simply don’t mean anything. . . . I go over every image, metaphor, comparison, to see if they are fresh and accurate. If you can’t find the right adjective for a noun, leave it alone. Let the noun stand by itself. A comparison must be as accurate as a slide rule, and as natural as the smell of fennel. . . . I take out all the participles and adverbs I can. . . . Adverbs are lighter. They can even lend you wings in a way. But too many of them make the language spineless. . . . A noun needs only one adjective, the choicest. Only a genius can afford two adjectives to one noun. . . . Line is as important in prose as in an engraving. It has to be clear and hard. . . . But the most important thing of all . . . is not to kill the story by working on it. Or else all your labor has been in vain. It’s like walking a tight-rope. Well, there it is. . . . We ought all to take an oath not to mess up our job.
From Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose, Harper Collins Publishers, 2006, p 263.
Our job! There is not a shred of doubt that Babel took his work with the utmost seriousness, and viewed everything he did to further his writing as his life’s work.
His life’s work; interesting; we’re straying far from mere work here. Life’s work implies something loftier than mere everyday work. It implies a calling, a devotion, a dedication that goes beyond what most do day to day in the workplace.
Is writing an invigorating pastime one runs to when time and other demands allow? Or, is writing work, serious work? Does it rise to a calling? A craft, an art form, a passion, a compulsion, even an addiction?
I believe it’s all of the above. It takes time, effort, skill, and application. It’s not always fun, and it’s often cuttingly difficult. And yes, sometimes boring. Put this way, writing sounds like “work” to me.
But, like Babel, I do feel that I “work like a pack mule” on my writing. And, yes, it’s my own choice; I am chained to the oar, and I love the oar! Heard this way, writing lofts into a calling, and can border on compulsion.
And, like Richard Ford, I also use “work” to describe what I do because it comes closest to conveying, as Ford states, that “…when I do it, I mean it, and would like you to take it and me seriously”.