September 2, 2010
There was an “aha” moment I once had when I understood, for the first time, why writing was difficult for me (and, I suspect, for everyone).
When you have a job out in the workforce, you know what your hours are, you get there, you do the work that you’ve been told to do or that you’ve been hired to do (there’s usually a job description), and then you go home. Oh yes, contemporary life has work life and home life bleeding together, but that’s another subject entirely.
So I realized that writing is hard because you don’t know what your hours are, you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing on any given day, you don’t know when you’re supposed to stop, and you don’t even know what you’ve been “hired” to do. Write an essay? A book? A book about what?
So then I realized – and this was my big, helpful moment – that in the workforce, roughly speaking, there’s management, and there’s labor. But that when you’re a writer, you have to be both management and labor.
When you’re a writer, you have to figure out what your work is, you have to determine your hours, you have to decide when you’re finished, you have to evaluate your work, you have to think about how the tasks will progress. In the workforce, this is management’s job. Labor goes in, does what’s defined. The job might be awful, but the job’s well defined. But as writers, we have to manage our own labor, and for those of us who might have come up in working class families, this might be very difficult. I come from a family, for example, who had no love for managers, and so I myself developed an almost physical aversion to that part of the writer’s job.
Labor. Working at the writing. Writing the pages. Writing lots of pages. That, I can do. That, I think, any of us who came up working class can do. We work hard. We write hard. We write lots. But many of us have a problem with managing our work, with defining our tasks, with evaluating what we have.
If we’re writers, we have to do both. It’s not easy. It might not come naturally. But that’s what we’ve taken on.
So think about this in relationship to your own writing life. Which do you prefer? Management? Labor? And then think about how you can develop some skills that might not come easily. I’ve found that many writers excel at one or the other, and that one or the other is harder to develop. In some extraordinary cases, I’ve known writers who only “do” the labor part of writing: they have thousands of pages of writing that haven’t been “managed.” And I’ve known writers who only “do” management: they have lists of writing tasks; they’ve rearranged their workplaces a score of times; they’ve decided the books they will write; they’ve evaluated, and evaluated some more the tiny number of pages they’ve written. The first is stuck in the “labor” part of our work; the second, in the “management” part.
I find that I can’t do labor and management at the same time. So I split up my writing life. There are stages of the process – the beginning, for example – that I let my labor side loose and when I tell management to stay away. And there are times when I call in management to tell me what to do and how to do it – during the latter stages of the process when I’m trying to shape the score of pages I’ve produced.
And then I divide up my writing days into “labor” tasks and “management” tasks. I write. And then I oversee my writing and evaluate my process (not my work, my process). I call in management and labor asks management for a day off, or a week off. You get the idea.
Once we become conscious that writing is hard because we have to learn how to do both, writing, I’ve discovered becomes, if not easier, than more manageable and more productive. The “split” in tasks is defined. We pay attention to both; we don’t neglect one, or the other.
So think about how you can ask your management writer self to help your labor writer self. The best writing life comes from our paying attention to both.