Is Writing Work?

Happy Labor Day, folks.

We don’t have classes tomorrow, Monday, in honor of the holiday. When I tell that to people who have non-academic jobs, they start to laugh uncontrollably, like Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners, and pound the table with their fists. And that’s just the women.

They know I teach a full load (although they have all the fun with that term that you might imagine) and then ridicule me for the fact that a full load means two classes. They know I co-edit a scholarly journal and then tease me because it only comes out quarterly (when I mention that many other journals produce even fewer issues, they simply don’t believe me). They know I do a lot of work with individual students–and THAT is the only part of my job that actually counts towards getting me some credit as a “good worker” because I am choosing my involvement with students, whereas the other business comes under the aegis of the business of being a professor.

I’ve learned not to complain about my schedule, my committee work, or my paperwork to any friends who are not full-time employees of universities. It just makes everybody mad.

So, to be honest, that part of my professional life is actually fairly tidy.

It’s the writing part of my life that confuses everybody–probably because I’m confused myself.

Does writing count as work?

What defines a task as work? When it’s difficult? When it profits someone (the person performing the task and–in the case of a piece of critical or scholarly writing–the person reading it)? When you get rewarded for it by receiving recognition, praise, money, or increased influence?

Does it really “count” as “work” to watch television if you’re going to refer to Gilligan’s Island in a blog, to use a wild example?

I had an uncle, widowed for many years, who used to come to my apartment for coffee and cake every weekend when I was in graduate school. Uncle Bill worked with my father and other uncles until Barry Bedspreads lost its lease, and then, like my father, he worked a series of retail jobs. On Sunday morning, Billy would come from Brooklyn and my father would come from 17th Street and they’d meet at my place on Lafayette. When my first edited collection was published–Sex and Death in Victorian Literature–I was proud to give them each a copy.

“Can I buy this at a bookstore in Sheepshead Bay?” Billy asked. “Probably not” I told him, “It’s a pretty specialized book.” “Will it be reviewed in The New York Times?” “I doubt it.” “Do you get any money for this?” “No.” “Then why the hell did you do it?”

“She needs to get her name on books to get a job,” my father explained, although I suspect he had the same questions as his brother-in-law.

“I don’t get it. A smart girl like her,” Billy pointed to me with his thumb, “She coulda been a lawyer. Or she coulda had a real job or written a real book. I don’t get it.” He shrugged his shoulders and ate his Danish and my father patted me on my back as if to say “There, there.”

I’m proud of most of the work I’ve done in the 25 years since that conversation, but I am still tempted to put quotation marks around the word “work” as if the concept needed training wheels.

What do you think, dear readers, on this Labor Day? And what do your non-academic community of friends and family think of the work you do?


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