The Ditches We Dig For Love

Writing and other forms of creative labour occupy a strange sort of place in our cultural imagination, a not-quite-work status that is somewhere between glorified and dismissed. The “Do What You Love” ethos has been much written about for how it articulates a lot of these attitudes and works to erase the “work” part of “creative work.” Slate wrote a great piece a couple of years ago that is still highly pertinent to this, so if you haven’t read that, go do it, I’ll wait.

Creative work under DWYL is naturalized as the extension of the the personality of the creative worker. We are driven to create by our very natures, by our love of creativity, and so our work is not really work. If this sounds familiar, it’s the same logic that’s been keeping women’s emotional labour hidden and uncompensated for approximately ever. Creative labour, in our current cultural and economic milieu, is much like emotional labour in that it’s held to stem from “an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our character.” If it’s work, it’s work we, as creative people, would be doing anyway.

(It’s not an accident that  you cross creative labour with “women’s work,” you get one of the most economically valuable and socially devalued genre in publishing: romance. Creative labour about feelings? Gross. It’s barely real writing.)

This naturalization of creative work leads to the legitimization of the “work for exposure” model that fuels much of the commercial blogosphere. We’d be doing it anyway, so why pay for it, right?  To a person hoping to eventually maybe sort of make a living doing creative work, this attitude makes me want to scream.  

The naturalization of creative work helps to legitimize its financial undervaluing, but it also masks certain standards of productivity. If creative work is natural to a creative person, we must be doing it all the time, right? You can tell a creative person by their urge to create, so if they’re not creating, they must not really be creative. Much like other kinds of work, our culture values a high volume of production in creative work, all while refusing to acknowledge it as real work. There’s all of the pressure and none of the recognition–and certainly none of the financial compensation. It’s a hell of a lot easier to work as a writer when you’re already paid to do it, when you don’t have to squeeze it in around the jobs that actually pay the bills.

And while it is true that a writer is someone who writes, writing constantly is an unattainable standard. I have seen so many creative people, writers particularly, beat themselves up over not writing. I do this too, and I’m trying to unlearn it. Doesn’t matter if you just finished a project or are going through life stuff or if work is wild and you just don’t have the time. You’re committed to your craft, aren’t you? So why aren’t you writing?  If writing flows naturally from our creative souls, it must be easy and natural to write constantly. You just need a little more discipline to really stoke that inner creative fire. Nature needs to be trammelled by discipline to really blossom, and writing every day, all the time, is the best way to do that.

But that’s not how it works. The best creative advice I’ve ever got was from my Grade 12 Writer’s Craft teacher; she said, “Writing is like digging a ditch.” (Thanks, Ms Westerhof!). It doesn’t matter how much you love the project; the bulk of writing is grinding work. Sitting down and wrestling with words and ideas until you can carve something meaningful out of the muck. It’s frequently boring. We have moments of inspiration, sometimes. But mostly it’s ditch-digging.

The corollary to that is: sometimes you need to set your shovel down and sit in the shade a while. If we understand writing as work, as labour, it makes more sense that we should sometimes need breaks from it. Needing a break doesn’t make you weak, it makes you human. As with any other kind of work, our capacity to perform that work is shaped by our circumstances and our abilities. Taking breaks is not a moral, personal, or artistic failing; it’s necessary to stay engaged and alive. Without it, we become tapped out, tired, and repetitive. The extreme end of constant production is burnout, which I can tell you from experience is absolutely no fun. Rest isn’t the opposite of creation, it’s an integral part of the process.

How much rest any one writer needs is highly dependent on their personal circumstances; those of us, like me, who work slowly and need a lot of rest aren’t worse writers or creatives. It was only when I began more fully attending to my own needs for rest that my creative process began to blossom because I was giving myself space to work in my own way and at my own pace. When I acknowledged writing as hard work, I started to build space for myself to do that work in way that is healthy and sustainable for me

Even if you’re trying to “do what you love,” love isn’t enough to keep you digging the ditch when you’re exhausted. Nor should it be. It’s not lack of love that drives us to rest; it’s self-preservation and self-care. Because I love my work, I need to take breaks from it in order to make it the best it can be. Sometimes doing what I love means not doing it, setting the shovel down and having a nap in the shade. The work’s always going to be there, but the love might not, so take care of it.

 

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