Chapter 62: Work, Mon Amour
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
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It is graduation season where I work and with it comes the lovely business of meeting parents and telling them good things about their children (parents never tire of hearing their children complimented, ever). Then you stand back and watch those children, who the day before were still your students, prepare to step off campus and out into the work world.
You like to think you have prepared them, that you have instilled in them the lessons that will, if not ensure success, certainly increase the chances. I have been teaching people to become journalists for thirty years and, perhaps because I have been so focussed on making sure my students possessed the necessary skills, I’ve too long neglected one vital lesson: that they are about to enter into a complicated, frustrating, exhilarating, and never-ending relationship with work.
Because I have been at this for some time, I have students who have become mid-career journalists. Their careers have flourished, even as their lives have become more complicated with partners, children, aging parents, illness, divorce, loss, and unexpected joy. With all that inevitable upheaval, with all the change that upends their lives, the one constant relationship has been with work.
Even as they have lost jobs and found new and better ones, even as they have quit jobs and found themselves wondering whether the field is still for them, work for many remains at the core of who they are, how they define themselves, how they see their place in the world.
Work is a relationship that is at once central but easily taken for granted; it is always there, dominating a large swath of waking hours, and often in the hours after the workday ends, as we return home, or take a detour with colleagues for a round or two, so we can talk about what happened at work that day. Heaven knows the folks at home don’t necessarily want to hear about it. Again.
Much is now made of work/life balance, and that conversation is long overdue. Covid, and all the ways it has changed work over the past two years, has given many the chance to pause and consider the role that work plays in their lives: how much time do I want to spend working, or thinking about work? What am I losing because work gets in the way?
But because we are talking about a relationship, it is also important to acknowledge what work gives us in return for what we put in. Work gives us different things at different times for different reasons, not all of them sane. I can only speak with the knowledge that comes with experience about the writing life, and what I have lived, and seen in the lives of friends and colleagues: an elastic, fraught, yet deeply rewarding relationship with work. It is not even close to being easy.
What I wanted from work when I was in my twenties feels different from what I wanted in my forties and different again from what I want in my sixties. When I was starting out I wanted work to make me feel more of who I hoped to be. (As I have written before, most successful writers I know are propelled by a neurotic fifth gear, a necessary weapon when facing down the irrationality of what we do.) When work failed to give me what I needed from it, when I felt stuck in jobs that were so numbingly routine and poorly paid that the only way to give things a spark was to see how quickly I could write a 600-word news story on a manual typewriter (ten minutes, but so what) I knew, as I did with different sorts of foundering relationships, that I had to get out.
Like so many writers I’ve known over the years, I spent a good part of my life searching for more from work – a story, a job, the right canvas (Magazines? Books? Which is right for me? Both?) I, like those friends and colleagues, often found myself let down by work, disappointed and even angry when I felt work was doing all the taking and none of the giving. I remember feeling old beyond my years in one of my first newspaper jobs as I watched a friend bemoan that work was not providing the creative outlet he thought it would. Too bad, kid, what did you expect?
I have friends for whom work devours their lives, even though they know it might be better to cut back, if they could. I’ve known others for whom work was, in the most essential way, home. I have seen friends who, twenty years along in their careers, come to feel that their relationship with work is no longer what it once was and conclude it is time to find something new.
Through it all, the constant is work, at least it is if you are serious about it. If you’re not, you will spare yourself a good deal of heartache, even though, I believe, you will deny yourself the joy that work can offer. When I say serious, I do not mean selectively serious – the mindset that allows you to believe you can turn the commitment to work off and on, depending on the story or the job. Being selectively serious is akin to a lifetime spent doing a lot of dating while avoiding committing. You need to be all in with work, even though it can break your heart.
Things change. Life gets complicated in ways you cannot imagine when you are at the beginning. Over time you spread yourself out, giving parts of yourself to people you have yet to meet. You want them; and you want work. You want it all. How you sort this out, how you make it work, is for you to determine, because any advice along these lines is as meaningless as telling teenagers to safeguard their feelings.
But what I will tell my students from now on is to understand that, if they do this right, work is not merely a job, certainly not in the work we do. It is a relationship and it will be with them for a very long time. There is a saying in boxing: the punch that knocks you out is the one you don’t see coming. To do the job well, you are committing to setting aside a place in your heart for work. Don’t be surprised when it hurts. Don’t miss the moments when it thrills. Keep your guard up.
I learned a lot about work from my mother. She was not a writer but a teacher, maybe the best that ever was. (At her shiva, the provost of my university approached my brother and me and told us about having had my mother as his first grade teacher. She was, he said, the best teacher he ever had.) My mother started teaching when she was 22 and the biggest mistake she ever made in her long life was stopping teaching in the eleven years from the time I was born until my youngest sibling started school. Much as she insisted that there was no place else she wanted to be but home – not that most mothers then had a choice – it became clear as we grew older that my mother spent those years depressed. It was not good for her or for us or for my dad who had to work three jobs.
When she went back to work, it was as if a shroud had been lifted. She returned to the classroom – she loved first graders best – and did not leave until she was 78, and even then reluctantly. After she died I mentioned to my father that in all the many photos he took of her in the ten years from her retirement to her death she is never smiling. Come to think of it, he said, you’re right.
I cannot say my mother had a healthy relationship with work. She had a relationship that feels like the kind captured in novels and movies that cannot help but choke you up. She loved it. She needed it. She was most alive doing it. She loved us too, ferociously.
Work, done right, can be a love story. However you choose to make the love work for you.
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