You Have to Like It Better Than Being Loved

Sejal Shah
February 24, 2016
Comments 10

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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.

10 thoughts on “You Have to Like It Better Than Being Loved

  1. Sejal,

    I cannot explain completely what this post has meant to me. So much. I want to print it and mail it to my mother, my sister. I want to Read it to my six year old son who asked me when I told him that I was going to be gone for a week to attend AWP, “Are you going to get paid?”

    I was immediately upset when he asked this. We wanted him to know Mama was going for work–for my writing. But he had also been told that his father leaves during the day so we could pay for the house, food, etc. This is how we explain his absence. My son wanted to know if the same was true for me.

    I told him that I was working, am working, on writing a book, but being paid is something that would happen after I finished. In the same way his father would be hired to build something, he would get paid at the end when the project was completed. And I said, my book was my project.

    I don’t think if I had not read this, I would have been able to explain this to my son, or to myself in that moment. So thank you.

  2. Amen to this, Sejal! I love how you’ve placed your thumb so articulately on this dilemma. As someone who has cooked seven dinners a week (and if I’m being honest here, several of those meals were delivered to my door in a paper bag or cardboard box), and who also has gone through periods of time working jobs that “count”, I find myself increasingly delighted when I encounter the bravery of those who, like yourself, tunnel-vision their way through uncertainty, and the occasional unsolicited comment from family friends, as they quest their life’s purpose. This is a feat above and beyond the qualificayion of “counting”. This is heroic. When I made the decision to teach yoga rather than return to a corporate job, a friend said the sweetest, most supportive thing I could hope to hear, she said, “If you build it they will come”. I often recall her encouraging words as I forge forward with my vision, especially on the days when I’m bone-exhausted and not sure if teaching yoga and juggling a part-time job really makes sense. But, rather than making “sense”, if I measure the worth of my deeds from a perspective of paying attention to what I really and truly love, as your essay suggests, I can say that my eyes/ears/heart are wide open and fully paying attention each and every day. In my opinion, this is the only way to live a life that counts : radically open and awakened to living out the heart’s desires. We are all building the story of our lives, and, often times when we follow our bliss the storyline seems risky, unchartered, even “less than”; but, if we look to the lives of those we admire, those who inspire our own spark to burn a little brighter, we likely see that they too, at some point, risked stepping outside the comfort zone of being “countable”. They have built it– “it” being the product of wedding their work to their bliss — and we count it as a honor and privilege to bear witness to the fruits of their dreams. Thank you for sharing how you live your life paying attention, Sejal. It is a beautifully inspiring thing.

  3. I love this, Sejal! Thank you for it. I think some of the most important/powerful work is not “legible” in this capitalist society. Social justice organizing, writing, making art, making change happen. We are stealthily shifting the ground beneath their feet… xoxox

  4. Thank you Sejal. Between you and Marge Piercy I am inspired to tune out even more of the other things and write a new poem one day soon… Here’s to all our bravest turns in life. By that I mean, be true to yourself and we all know the friend (so-called) person at the gym was just jealous. Here’s to the gym routine too. Love it. xo Sunu

  5. Sejal, as someone who recently resigned from a perfectly good tenure-track position to write full time, I resonate with this article so deeply. I’ve had more than one colleague call me “brave” in the way that I know they meant “foolish,” and it’s taken me months to give myself permission to think of this move as legitimate. The word “legible” is so important in your post here; that’s the thing I’m constantly trying to do—to find a way to describe to others, and often to myself, that is recognizable as real and good work in this world. Thank you for your thoughts here.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Nickole! And thank you also for being brave enough to make that move and to write about it. I don’t know why legibility matters so much to me, but it did and it does. In that moment it did. I wanted it to be known that what I work at matters! And that it has worth, and that it is work. And I think the person I was mostly speaking to is me.

  6. I often laugh with writer friends about others’ perception of our craft. I would never say to my dentist, “Here, let me pull that tooth for you,” but people often think they can write as a professional does:).

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed your reflections on work and the matter of “legibility”. It’s hard not to feel that we should be (legible), and yet most of us must labor a little bit every day to free ourselves from the concern that what one does as a writer and artist so often doesn’t appear in the world in any clear or obvious way; doesn’t point to values that most others would recognize or share.

    I loved going back to the Marge Piercy poem; it’s full of insight and hard truths and also some consolation.

    I’ll be sharing this post with several of my students, whom I know are thinking about many of the same things.

  8. Love this, truly. Thank you for a thorough treatment of a sticky topic. Work is its own cure, indeed– or it must be. May I add that the work of parenting AND of artist-ing are so often totally invisible? The middle of the night crappy diaper to change, or crappy lines to objectively edit; the careful acts of loving touch when a child’s temper flares or a sentence needs realignment…these things do not make it into the history books. But they do make it, and us.

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