Labor/Management

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.

Labor.  Management.

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.

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6 Responses to “Labor/Management”


  1. So very true, and even the “multi-taskers” among us are usually only performing their various chores on one side or the other of this split.
    Dorothea Brande said something similar when she talked about the kind of benign schizophrenia a would-be writer needed to develop—that split between the loose creator and the tighter editor, both being needed within the same person/personality, but not at the same time.

  2. William Bradley Says:

    I write all sorts of things. When I get a good idea, I usually jot it down or type it into the notepad on my phone. Because I mismanage my time, I lose out. Sometimes I have a concept that I’m excited to write about and because I don’t wait for a better time, come out writing something I don’t like. Labor management in the field of writing is difficult.

  3. Ann Says:

    This is a Universal Truth! Like the “two writers” that Dorothea Brande elucidates in her fabulous book from the 1920s: Becoming a Writer. Or the elephant and the rider, from the recent management book, Switch. (I highly recommend both.)

    These concepts are very helpful to me and speak to my 10 year old daughter, as well, when she is having a hard time writing down her fabulous ideas.

  4. Jason Perry Says:

    Lately, I’ve been a reader, and a lot less of a writer. I know that writing is sharpening my pen/sword thing. But, without reading lots and lots there is no pen/sword thing strong enough to work with. A writer is created, and an Aristotelian would agree that writing is becoming and not being.

  5. Stephanie Wong Says:

    I usually write about things as they go. I’m not very strong in writing about past events buts in a diary-like way, I find my voice and get all my thoughts and feelings written down. I do agree with having to find both your management and labor self. I’m very short for time because of two jobs, and being a full-time student. I do get to set some time away from the chaotic world and sit back and write aboout how i’m feeling on the weekends, but I wish I had better time management as well.

  6. xxnettie09xx Says:

    I always have trouble with this. Even when I find the time something seems to come up and take my writing time away. I then end up carrying around a mini notebook to jot down an idea. If I do not have this I use my notebooks for my other classes. It helps me out because my idea is written down and not forgotten. I’m still working on finding a way to manage my time because my hours keep changing, but when I find the time I get my notes out and start writing.


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