Saturday, August 6, 2011

Working Life

 Working Life

Writing poetry has been felt laborious and slow lately. I thought this was partly because I have been pouring a fair bit of my creativity into my new job, and partly because I have been strangely anxious about the upcoming release of my new chapbook. 

But I realized today during my usual Saturday writing session, it’s actually because I have been operating with the conviction that my life as a poet and my life as a person with a paid career must remain carefully separated; that I cannot be a poet in my job or a worker in my creative life. And that those two parts of my existence will inevitably remain in conflict. 

My existence, for the last nine months or so, has been consumed with the vagaries of my working life…being in a job that was no longer challenging or bringing meaning to my life; that was in fact, actively worsening my depression; going through multiple, grueling cycles of job searching, interviewing, anticipation, and disappointment, and losing hope of ever finding work in my chosen field. Then, experiencing the blessing, excitement, anxiety and stress of actually getting what I wanted, and plunging into the new and (very) unknown. But it never occurred to me to write poetry about it.

My working-class roots make me feel ashamed of even caring about something as high-falutin’ and haughty as poetry; something as essentially frivolous as creating art instead of just being happy to have a job; any job; to make a living at something, no matter how dull or unstimulating. At the same time, a part of me still buys into the myth that poets who need to work at jobs outside of teaching poetry and writing poetry are failures who are not committed enough to their passion to give up everything for it; that there is something shameful about working for a living if you are an artist. So I’ve been trying to keep work out of my poetry, and minimize my identity as a poet at work.

But it occurred to me that as a poet whose life informs her art, it’s a waste of a rich fount of material to pretend that work does not take up the amount in space in my heart and soul that it does; that I must be secretive about how much it has consumed my mind, body and spirit this last year. Ironically, my chosen career path is in the field of volunteerism, where I support an unpaid labor force for whom defining the meaning of work in their lives outside of material reward is tantamount to their success, and the success of my organization.

Today, I wrote a great deal about work. What it means in our lives, what it means to lose it—as so many have and continue to in this country—what it brings to our lives and takes away from our lives, and what it tells us about our national and personal identities. I’m excited to start a new series of poems, possibly even an entire chapbook, of poems about work. 

--Kristen McHenry


risaden said...

There is such a tension for writers with jobs that don't support our writing, or get in the way of it, or otherwise create confusion in our identity and make demands on our time. And yet you are so right to see that they are can be a large part of our "material" for writing. I am so happy to know that you have a job that you are excited about and have a chapbook coming out. Lots of good stuff.

Kristen McHenry said...

Thank you, risaden! I do think that the right sort of job can provide material for our writing, and that there can be a way integrate our working life and our artistic life; it's just been very hard for me to master personally. But we'll see how it goes :)

Thanks for reading!

Dick said...

Much of this resonates strongly with me, Kristen. Oddly, even though I've been retired for two years, the self-ascribed identity of 'poet' over 'teacher' still feels absurdly wrong. Food for thought here.