Last week, I had a run in with a family friend at the gym—a collision that frustrated me and left me reaching for a poem by Marge Piercy I first encountered over twenty years ago.
Family Friend: “I heard from my husband you’re not teaching at ________ School. So you’re not working.”
I explained that I was working on a book and teaching writing. FF replied, “Oh yes, you like to write.” Without skipping a beat, she continued, “Your parents didn’t want you to go into journalism.” She mentioned someone who is a successful journalist (“You can find his articles on the internet”), working in India. I muttered something about going to meet my mother and grandmother and escaped the pool.
In Piercy’s poem, “For the young who want to,” the speaker addresses work, as well as what our culture acknowledges and values. The whole poem is worth reading, but I’ll quote from it here:
Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.
What does it mean to ask someone whether or not they work? It’s one of the ways in which we assess status, organize people into discernible categories, and sleuth out economic class. Though Piercy’s poem and this post are about writing, I also thought about my parents and the way our society defines work more broadly.
I was raised by a father who is a physician and a mother who ran the house, cooked dinner seven times a week, taught us to drive, ferried me to dance class and my brother to swim practice; she dealt with car troubles and taxes, mowed the lawn, paid all the bills. Some of those years she was also a bank teller in our town, and she worked as a bookkeeper before I was born. But most of the time, she did not “work.” My father’s job was recognized, well-compensated, and well-respected. I don’t know that my mother’s job/work was or is.
For several years, I held a tenure-track faculty position, teaching creative writing, composition, and literature in New York. One of the better parts of it for me (along with health insurance and travel funds) was that the job was legible—people understood (mostly) that it was work. For the last two years I taught high school English at an independent school, adjuncted at a local university, and taught writing & yoga workshops in the community. I worked a lot (try teaching four sections of ninth grade English), but not nearly as much as my mother did (does—I did not raise kids, nor am I currently the primary caregiver for an elderly parent).
After I got married last year and was setting up my home office, moving into a new apartment, my friend, writer Holly Wren Spaulding, gave me a beautiful broadside as a housewarming present. It reads: “Work is Paying Attention to What Matters Most.” I have the broadside, with its words from The Solace of Fierce Landscapes by Belden Lane, framed in a place where I can see it every day.
I faltered, I think, when I cared if my life and work were legible to this family friend. Of course, I knew what she meant. Did I have a paying job? No. I was privileged to be able to take time off from a full-time job to focus on finishing my book. For these months, writing is my day job. It won’t always be, but for right now it is.
The final two verses of Piercy’s poem have to do with art more than jobs, but it does have to do with identity and work:
every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.
The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.
Piercy’s last lines in particular have come back to me again and again over the years. “The real writer is one / who really writes….Work is its own cure. You have to / like it better than being loved.” Each person must define work for herself. We need to believe in art and writing more than we need others’ approval. In my case, with a community of immigrant family friends who emigrated to this country through their training or as a result of their value to the U.S. as engineers, physicians, or professors, any career outside of these fields falls outside of what is visible, legible, or even acknowledged.
Piercy’s poem, published in 1982, feels reminiscent of its time, of a certain time in feminism, a relevant time for me—I was beginning to understand what work society valued and noted that women’s work, whether paid or not, often was not. Whether or not I had children, I planned to “work outside of the home”—I wanted my work to count. Of course now I see the problem is with U.S. government policies that don’t allow full-time caregivers to contribute to social security and the criminal lack of parental leave, affordable day care, and elder care. Beyond this, there is the fact of ever-dwindling grants and fellowships to help support artists and writers.
This year of writing, while a privilege, has come with its own discomfort and opportunities. I have come to understand and accept that it is my job and no one else’s to recognize and value my work and my writing—whether or not income-producing, and whether or not anyone else does.