Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Freedom to Create

Last week I was sick. This was not just some little head cold. This was sicker than I can ever remember being in my adult life -- waking up in the night in a cold sweat sick, canceling class because I could barely get out of bed sick. I took two days off work, during which I did nothing but watch House of Cards, eat cereal, and post the occasional social media update just in case something really bad happened. (At times like this, when you live alone, it’s nearly impossible not to verbalize some version of, “If I collapse in the middle of my bedroom floor, how long will it be before someone finds me?”) I would have taken two more days off work but, well, I can’t actually do that. Hourly and contract labor has to be done, or my rent will not be paid. It’s that simple.

Two days off was a big concession for me. I’m the one who would show up for class with bronchitis in college. I forced myself out of bed and into a seat in the back of the room. I covered my nose and kept a distance from my classmates, but damn it, I was there. This is not a marker of pride for me (though it was at age 20); theologically, it’s a shortcoming. As a preacher and a teacher it is nothing if not poor modeling to get up in front of people as if everything is fine when you can barely get through a sentence without coughing. I’m learning to practice what I preach, to rest even when I am well and especially when I am sick, but after being knocked flat for an entire week I know one thing: I’m still working too hard.

The human body has a way of issuing wake up calls like this. I’ve been working on this blog post about work for a month or so (though I’ve been too busy with my paid work to finish it until now), so it’s no wonder that life has yet again collided with my words. How we work, why we work, what we work for -- there are so many questions, all of them deeply theological, that I want to consider, yet what I keep coming back to is the simple fact that so many of us work too much. That, and the fact that most of the work I do (like many artists) doesn’t “count” because it’s not paid. That in and of itself is laden with theological assumptions about value which I reject. Yet I also live inside that system, and as a descriptive statement, I cannot deny its truth. It’s a lamentable reality of my day to day labor, one which I feel powerless to change.

So much for that. As I said, I have been thinking a lot about work lately, even before getting sick and being quite literally forced to stop working for a couple days. I have been feeling overworked, and I have been trying to pay closer attention to how work is interwoven with the rest of my life: When do I work? How do I work? Which of the many things that I do count as work?

I am preoccupied by these questions because I am exhausted. I have three part-time jobs currently:

- Communications Coordinator at a nonprofit, RCWMS, where I work 10-15 hours a week.

- Writing tutor at the Center for Theological Writing at Duke Divinity School, where I work approximately 5 hours a week.

- Adjunct English Instructor at Durham Technical Community College, where I work way more hours than I am supposed to.

On top of this I take on the occasional freelance project helping nonprofits or other authors with their social media and web presence. I am also a full-time student, and I try to write things that aren’t for school on a regular basis as well, both because I like to and because it’s part of building the career I actually care about most: as a writer.

Last year I published seventeen things, none of which had anything to do with school or my “regular” jobs. I was paid for one of those seventeen essays.

Hear me loud and clear: litanies like this one are too easily twisted into cries for recognition, into declarations of our own self-importance. Look at everything I do! Look how important I am!

That is not my intent. My intent is to confess.

I do too much, I rest too little, I practice something other than what I preach. And I know I am not the only one.

Mornings like this, when I feel totally spent, while nonetheless sluggishly moving forward, trying to get things done, I take stock of everything I have to do, and instead of diving in and getting to it, I feel defeated. It all just feels so impossible. My brain can’t function well enough to do any of the things on my “to do” lists right now. I’m so spacey on days like this that a few weeks ago I left my passport on the copier at FedEx where I went to copy it for some paperwork I was filling out. (Thankfully it was still there when I realized what I’d done, a full 24 hours later.)

Sometimes I set my alarm a half hour early because I know when it goes off I will already feel defeated by the day, and will need 30 minutes of snoozing to ease into the possibility that I can do this, again, one more time.

I had been up for two hours today, and I still hadn’t eaten or showered, when I lamented that I was wasting my morning. I haven’t done any work yet, I thought. I went back over the first two hours of my day, which look a lot like most days:

I wake up around 7. I fold up the futon and put my bedding away (oh, glamourous writing life: I am almost 30, and I sleep on a futon!). I make coffee. While the coffee brews, I write in my journal: at least three sentences, every morning, whether I feel like it or not. Plenty of days I write more, though sometimes the “more” waits ‘til after I have a coffee cup in hand. After I’ve written by hand for a bit, I open my computer and check my email, reading and deleting all the listserv digests that showed up in the night, skimming the New York Times headlines and maybe reading an article from time to time. Then I check Facebook and Twitter. This generally translates into finding and reading news articles and interesting essays, and favoriting and re-tweeting interesting posts from writers and scholars I follow (in addition to the occasional hilarious tweet from @PinterestFake). The rule I set for myself for this “internet time” is that I need to be done with it, dressed and ready to head to my desk by 9am. This translates into about an hour online. My coffee hour.

Today I started my day an hour late because I slept in a bit due to residual coughing from last week, and since I am creature of habit I did things at the same speed I normally do, and closed my internet browser at about 10. This was when my lament began, about all the work I’d failed to do so far, feeling like the morning was half over. (Which is was.) Here is what I noticed, though: nearly everything I had read, posted, tweeted, etc. was related to my work (excluding the BuzzFeed “Which one of Jesus’ disciples are you?” quiz, I suppose). A beautiful essay from a literary journal, an article about adjunct labor and public intellectuals, a blog post from a favorite theologian, an interview with essayist Leslie Jamison -- literature, religion, the academy. Those are my work.

I’m so used to the phrase “wasting time on the internet” (and don’t get me wrong, I do that too) that I forget that a lot of what I do online is work. Good, important, enjoyable work.

Unpaid work.

Much of my effort to be a good literary citizen happens online. A lot of my published work appears online. All the publicizing and marketing of my writing and most other people’s writing, these days, happens online. Writing, activism, work -- they happen on the internet.

As someone who works from home a lot of the time, or at jobs where a lot of labor happens on my own schedule, it is really easy to lose track of what is work and what is not. There’s no “work-life balance” because I’ve ceased to separate the two. Work that happens at home, after I leave my paid job for the day, is still work, yet because it lacks the paycheck, or because it is something I do primarily because I love it, somehow gets relegated to a hobby -- it’s what I do in  my “spare” time. It’s "leisure." So, I rarely actually relax, in part because even when I try to intentionally set aside time to do so, I don’t rest well because I feel guilty and preoccupied because of everything I feel like I ought to be doing. Every hour I spend writing is an hour I could be doing work for money; every hour I spent resting is an hour I could spend writing. And so on.

If the aforementioned sense of self-importance is one reason we laud our busyness, this guilt is the flip side of that. Guilt, and shame. Since I am lucky enough to do work connected to my multiple humanities degrees, it is easy to feel like I am not allowed to complain about being over-worked. I have it so good! I am living the dream! I am not a hostess any more, nor a babysitter! (The latter is still one of the best jobs I have ever had in many respects.)

And, since I am stubbornly sticking to my goal of making being a writer the central work of my life, I feel like I need to jump at every opportunity that comes before me, even if I know I don’t have time for it. Or, since I am coming from a place of privilege, I sense that I should just be grateful and stop insisting I deserve a little rest now and then. There are plenty of people working as long and hard, or harder, than me at other, less “fulfilling” jobs.

The thing is, I think everyone else should be able to rest. That is where I am trying to go with this: this isn’t just about my own exhaustion. It’s also about the fact that I know I am far from the only one working too hard. It’s The American Way. Most people work too much -- CEOS, tenure track professors, PhD students, custodians, adjuncts, fast-food restaurant employees, medical students (especially medical students! dear God!), coal miners, HVACS.

The difference is that some people are paid lots of money to work too hard, while others -- fast-food employees, for example -- work multiple jobs for a minimum wage that is not enough to live on.

People like to tell me how many artists in the past worked full time at other menial jobs -- waiting tables, say -- while writing the “great american novel.” I want to explain to these people that most of us cannot do that anymore. That was a different world, a different economy. From what they say, a person could live off those wages, and that’s a great idea. But that is rarely true anymore.

We romanticize the “starving artist,” but artists are human: we need to eat. We need to rest. There is nothing more holy about a work of literature penned at night, after 40-plus hours at another job, versus one written with the luxury of an artists grant. Art is not somehow worth more if you had to struggle harder to make space in your life to create.

The ugly truth is that there are many, many “great american novels” that have never been written because their would-be-authors could not afford the time to write.

I once read that most of us will spend our whole lives working, trying to earn the right to do the thing we really wanted to do all along -- in my case, to write. In other words, I have to buy the freedom to create.

The perpetual question guiding me these days is whether and how it is possible to resist that mode of being. To claim the freedom to create here, now, even -- especially -- when I can’t afford it.

When I daydream about a better world, I imagine a shorter work week, a living wage, quality public education for everyone, well-paid teachers, bike paths and public transit. And people who are paid for their writing. Not because payment dictates worth, but because payment makes the conditions for creative work possible.

And you know what? I feel guilty about that, too. Wanting to be paid for my work -- for my writing work. Yet what is so wrong with wanting to be paid for my labor? What is wrong with wanting a living wage for doing good work that is of value to other people?

We’ll pay $5 for a cup of coffee, but balk at online publications with a pay wall.

My way of living is unsustainable. If I keep trying to work like this I will not be able to write the way I can and should. I will be too tired, too distracted, and too guilty about all the paid work left undone in order to make the writing happen. I will run myself into the ground. Or, I’ll simply give up trying to create.

It is all well and good to say we have to write because we love it. Of course we do. But I can’t -- actually literally cannot do it without a roof over my head, food to eat, and a computer to type on. Facebook likes and re-tweets are not going to provide that.

I spent an hour on the first draft of this, and now I feel guilty about that, too. My school work isn't done, and I have papers to grade and a newsletter to edit. Let’s not talk about the subsequent hours of editing, thinking, and editing again before this link goes live.

"Balance" is a myth I've given up chasing.