The World of Work

These past couple of weeks I’ve felt more like a travel agent than an academic. There’s a location I’m trying to sell, an oasis of calm contemplation and satisfying solitariness, rather like one of the smaller Greek islands, that we might call the land of work. It’s nice there. There’s a certain spaciousness, some peace of mind, and on a good day, pretty spectacular views. I find it’s necessary to sell it as a location because students (and troubled students most of all) have a very different concept of what the world of work might look like. In their minds it’s more like Hieronymous Bosch’s images of hell: a blazing cavern of claustrophobia and incarceration where demons stand over you with pitchforks and whips. Work is all about enforcement and obligation, about submitting to painful shackles and humiliating punishment. It’s little wonder they don’t like to go there very often, or if they do, the result is anxiety and distaste. The transition to university is such an awkward one to make, because ostensibly the environment of learning remains constant, but the person who inhabits it is suddenly very different. Up until university, education is part and parcel of the child’s desire to become an adult, to master the world, to gain attention of a good kind, to try out rituals of competition, to gain a sense of self-worth. But the child who makes it to university may well be forgiven for thinking that he or she has actually now attained all of these goals. What are they supposed to do about work in that case? It’s all too easy for what was once a journey up a necessary ladder to look like a form of self-imposed torture, and the relationship to work has to be remade from scratch.

Of course, this situation is by no means applicable only to students. Any one works for a living is obliged to figure out a similar equation. What do we expect work to do for us? Well, pay the bills, I hear you shout. Which is true, but if work is only about paying the bills then it’s probably time to move on. It isn’t providing all the important and helpful things, like purpose, and interest and a sense of shared responsibility. Work offers us roles we can play and people we can be, competent, admirable people, efficient or useful or just plain needed. But those roles are complicated, I think, when the issue of being a ‘success’ creeps into the working environment. Then work always risks being bound up with unresolved parts of our identities, problematic parts, because the notion of success is based on a wish for the future to look different to the present, for us to have attained something that we lack right now. It is, in other words, a way of being a child again, with part of our qualifications for adulthood still missing. We still, despite all our efforts, have yet to ‘make it’.

One of the most complicated of all the success stories is the one of becoming a writer. It’s probably why writers make such fabulous biographical subjects, as their lives are inevitably fraught with psychoses, harnessed to the cause of abstract success. I write this with some irony, and some humility, you understand, being in the sorry position of starting to think about how I might become this fabled beast, the successful writer. The truth is anyone can be a writer – it’s the simplest thing in the world to pick up a pen or settle down behind a keyboard. Getting other people to read you is the next hurdle, and then getting people to like what you read is a further frontier. To actually get people to pay for what you write is so far off this particular map that it might as well be in a different galaxy. I have no idea how anyone ever manages to make any money doing this, and rather suspect it may all be a myth. So, to set oneself the goal of being successful opens up a huge space between the person who writes and their future ideal, and the real question is: what happens in this space? Often an intense psychodrama gets acted out, of longing for approval and horror of rejection, other people may be reasonably cursed for their lack of insight or intelligence, and there may be more wailing and wishing than words put on pages. The more the focus lies on the attainment of success, the more the pleasurable activity of writing itself recedes, and the less likely it is that the writer inhabits a peaceful Greek island of calm and contentment. But this isn’t to say that they are not being successful on the sly, finding a way to give voice to injustices, insecurities and rebellions that maybe never got enough of an airing before. But what do I know? There must be a way to write healthily and happily, and maybe even to publish it, too, without courting negativity.

What I’m starting to discern from my students is that work is no fun if the demons with pitchforks are sitting on your shoulder and whispering evil nothings in your ear. I’m thinking that the pursuit of the top mark is a fundamentally self-punishing desire that speaks volumes about insecurity and should be distinguished from pride in one’s work or intellectual integrity. I’m thinking that one should always go where the energy is in whatever one is doing, and then gently unite curiosity and interest to the kind of discipline that is firm, not tortuous. And I think that any trip into the world of work begins with the metaphorical purchase of a ticket to an island of serene contemplation, to a state of mind that is relaxed, open, ready, and receptive, where success and failure are understood to be mirages of dehydration. We can’t always make it there, this is life after all, but it’s the best location I’ve ever found to work in.

14 thoughts on “The World of Work

  1. Dear Anne – it isn’t possible, is it? I’ve looked at this from every which way and can see that the only people who earn money from writing are those who are already super-famous and earning it. It’s one of those impossible paradoxes! But I’m glad, nay relieved, if you agree, as this is definitely one of those posts where I’m thinking on the screen and trying to work things out as I go along. I’d love to have you at a seminar! love and hugs. xxx

  2. I find myself thinking along these lines a lot, and I can see our thought processess traveling down the same rather convoluted paths. I’ve learned a lot about the satisfaction to be derived from “work,” but then I’m fortunate enough to have a job I enjoy and feel capable of performing well. I don’t know how much of that is a function of the job itself, and the people I interact with, or a function of finally getting myself into that “calm, serene place” where I’ve learned to perform it.

    I’m also coming to terms with the whole writing for money thing, and like you, I’m not sure the struggle to get to that point is worth risking the affection I’ve developed for my unique writing process. Writing is one of the ways I escape, one of the places I find an oasis of serenity in the world and in my tortured thoughts, and I don’t think I can afford to do anything to botch that up!

    Sorry for rambling, but your words set my thoughts spinning (in a good way!)

  3. This struck a chord with me in respect of the notion of why we study once we’ve got past the stage of school, where there really doesn’t seem to be very much choice; as you say, there it’s something we do to grow up. But I recently had a conversation with my almost best friend in the world that made me question whether we understood the concept of studying in any similar way at all. For me studying is all about learning, about knowing and understanding. It is an end in and of itself. Something Susan said to be the other day made me realise that for her studying is a way of bettering her position, a means to an end rather than the end itself. I’m not quite certain what to do with this new piece of learning except to keep quiet about it. I value the friendship too much to say anything that might rock it. But it came as a real shock.

  4. Becca – I’m enjoying your comment very much, as it helps me to clarify my own thought on this, too. I think it’s possible for us to fall into that serene place, just like one might geographically come across paradise, but I also think that it can be recreated, given a little time and thought. Once you know how to get in the zone, it’s easier to keep practising (and it’s only ever a kind of practice, I think). I would suggest that over time, you’ve found what you like, what suits you, and carved a life for yourself out of it. That’s just right, by my book. The writing for money thing is a tricky one. I think it’s like gambling – you have to set limits to what you’ll give in the hope of a good return. I wouldn’t want to compromise what I think is intrinsically important to me in writing, but I wouldn’t wish to be inflexible. It’s a difficult balancing act, but ultimately, like you, I would hate for money to become important in the process. And never apologise – I rely on the comments that you and other blogging friends make to sort my own ideas out!

    Ann – and yes, this is another comment that helps me think this through more clearly. I think there’s probably learning, which involves developmental processes and study, which is the calm, serene and yet passionately engaged way of living that I also love and cannot imagine life without. But you could fit whatever two terms you wanted in their places – I’m sure you would see the difference, and probably with far more nuance and subtlety than I do, having taught young children where these processes are more marked. I do wonder how very, very complex our relationship is to learning, and your friend may actually feel not so very different from you, but her upbringing and life and her experiences may mean that she requires a worldly motivation to place around an activity that could appear (to some) self-indulgent. It all depends on who she grew up around and how her own learning was framed. I think it is surprising when close friends turn out to be differently wired up on the things that are really important to us, but perhaps in its way, that’s just a learning process for us all, too.

  5. You have so nicely outlined exactly why I never pursued a path trying to make money writing. I’m afraid if I were ever to start trying to get published (not that the thought doesn’t cross my mind), all the joy of it would just go away. Therefore, I just write and write for my own satisfaction, and I fantasize that maybe someone will find all my stuff when I’m dead and gone and I’ll become a brilliant writer, making money for someone else (doesn’t that seem to be the only other way to make money as a writer, besides already being rich and well-known, to let someone else make it all from your efforts?), posthumously.

  6. Emily – I tell you, I am going to be so famous when I’m dead. In retrospect I’m sure I’m going to be seen as a blogging revolutionary and a cutting edge academic 😉 Until that great day, I had better just content myself with telling people what I liked about certain books,

  7. Oh, I’m stuck in that Bosch painting with a torturous vision of the serene island floating in the middle of a burning lake. My boss has given me a wooden raft and long pole and told me to start paddling. I asked if I could at least have a flame retardant suit and she said it wasn’t in the budget. So I am going to library school and eventually I will have built a nice steel bridge to get me over the burning lake and to that lovely island.

    As for making money from writing, I have heard from many writers, even the ones who are making a living at it, that it is a very small percent who can actually do it and most of the time it is just plain luck that gets them there. I hope you are one of the lucky ones 🙂

  8. Very good points abour working for yourself as opposed to working for others. And as for the successful writer thing, I agree that it seems very confusing. I guess the trick might be to write what you like (as Steve Biko said) and get someone else to market it for you. That way the writing process won’t dry up. I think that as far as possible you should try and ignore what the market wants and write the books that you are burning to write. We’ll all market it on our blogs for a start 🙂

  9. Lately I think I’ve been inhabiting that same island as Stefanie has. Work has been a happy environment and all those things your mention, but then someone comes along and decides to stir the pot up and we’re all waiting for things to settle again and see where you’ve landed! 🙂 As for writing–I think writers have to really love it and do it for the love of it and hope the money follows! All my fingers are crossed tightly that you’ll be a big success!

  10. As I read your post, I was thinking about what a relief it was to finish grad school a few years ago and stop “working” on reading and writing and start doing it for fun (with a little bit of work continuing on but at a much slower pace). I definitely have some work issues! College and grad school were great experiences but accompanied by so much anxiety that I fully understand why students dread doing their work — it’s not just working, it’s confronting one’s insecurities again and again. That’s hard work of an entirely different sort.

  11. once i came to the conclusion that my writing wouldn’t earn me money in the traditional sense (ie, novelist, poet, playwrite) and found myself doing it anyway, I really felt so much freer. Before it was like this anxiety…like, HOW AM I GOING TO LIVE DOING THIS? To be fair, my writing does in some earn my living…I spend at least 50 percent of every day writing in my job, but once I came to recognize that my writing had to be FOR me, it was something I had to do whether I was ever successful at it or not, well, I really became much more comfortable with it.

  12. Oh Stefanie! I would parachute in and rescue from the burning lake if I could! Still, it sounds as if you have the perfect escape plan, and if I might just mention that Cambridge has lots of lovely libraries… well, you never know. And thank you for your lovely wishes! If I ever make any money (a bit doubtful) I will definitely put it towards visiting my blogfriends! Pete – aw, thank you and I’ll hold you to that! I’m always torn between flexibility and holding out for what I want, with the former the far stronger force. But there comes a point when you can only do what you can do, and I think I’ve just about reached that. It may keep me poor, but it may also keep me happy. Enough said. Danielle – when I come to rescue Stefanie, I will most certainly pick you up too. I feel for you, my friend, so much. Work stress is so very unpleasant. Still, at least the blogworld offers much in the way of comfort and distraction and solidarity. I don’t know what I’d do without my regular dose of support from blogbuddies like yourself. Dorothy – that is a genius remark. University work is about confronting one’s insecurities over and over again, and why should that be? Hmm, much for me to ponder there, and thank you! You’ve given me something very significant to think about. Courtney – that sounds like a very wise and necessary journey to make. I think you are quite right, that writing becomes somehow uncomfortable if it ceases to be about pleasing the inner self. Perhaps by its nature, it’s the place of greatest honesty with ourselves, on all levels. I love what you have to say about this so thank you for sharing. Bkclubcare – what a lovely comment! Thank you so very much – you’ve made my day!

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