How do you define work?

How do you define work? I have a habit of defining work as that which pays the bills. Part of this comes from necessity, or course, because there must be money each month for the mortgage, the electricity bill, groceries, etc. But what if my definition of work were expanded? What if those things that I do, things that have a value that is not monetary but is meaningful, were classified as work?

For example, I run a small press. I tend to think of every minute I give to the press as minutes taken away from my “real work,” because the press doesn’t break even, and when I am reading submissions, formatting books, and taking care of the distribution, I am not earning an income. (Of course, the fact that I’m not breaking even probably indicates that there’s something wrong with my “business model,” not that I have one. The moment I had a business model, the small press would become work, and then I would likely begin to resent it).

What about blogging? I blog as a kind of distraction, but also to maintain some sense of myself as a person in conversation with others. Despite the fact that there is a value in blogging, the fact that I don’t get paid to do it means that I don’t consider it work. In fact, I consider it play–on par with reading, which is another guilty pleasure.

My two primary forms of work are writing my books–for which I receive advances and royalties–and working with clients through my book doctor business. These activities are clearly work, because they contribute to the household income. If I did not publish my own books or consult with private clients on their own writing projects, I would have to find another kind of work to pay the bills. I have no desire to take on the kind of jobs I had when I was in my twenties–waitressing, advertising, and temping, for example–so I do the work that I know I’m good at, the work that seems to make the biggest return on my investment of time with the smallest amount of pain: writing my own books and helping others write theirs.

But writing books takes me a very long time, so the financial remuneration is often delayed not by weeks or months, but by years. As I write this, I am fulfilling my fourth novel contract with my publisher. It is clear to me, this many years into the life of a “paid novelist,” that the fact that I consider my books work makes them more laborious and time-consuming to write. I am happy to have the contracts, but because of the contracts, each novel looms over me as a thing to be finished, a deadline to be met, a job to be done.

What if I didn’t think of my novels as work? Eight years ago, before I entered my first publishing contract with a major New York publisher, I thought of teaching as my work, because it was teaching that paid the bills. At that time, I taught at an MFA program in creative writing, and had been doing so for years. Teaching seemed to be my career track, and writing was my guilty pleasure. I assumed I would always teach, that I’d work diligently toward the “tenure track,” that creating syllabi and reading grad school applications and serving on thesis committees would be part of my life for a long time. I knew that writing would always be a very strong part of my identity, and I knew that without the books I would not have the teaching jobs; however, because I’d never really been paid to write my books, beyond token advances that wouldn’t even cover a month’s rent, I didn’t consider it work.

Now, I just take a class every few years as a visiting writer. Now, when I teach, it feels as though I’m playing hooky from my real work. Because, when I crunch the numbers, teaching doesn’t pay enough to justify the time spent away from writing. I am deeply grateful to have been spared the life of the full-time academic, because, as it turns out, every time I teach, I resent the fact that I’m not writing as much as I “ought to be,” or as much as I want to.  I think of all those writers who got the “cush” teaching job and then barely managed to put out a book every seven years, or even to put out any more books at all. I can see how it happens, because teaching takes so much out of you.  I never want to be the kind of writer who stops writing because all my time is spent teaching people how to be writers. That kind of work, to me, would not be worth the (inadequate) paycheck.

Why does it matter, though, whether we classify a thing as work or not? Does it matter at all? To me, it does, because calling a thing work frees me up to do it. If it is not work, I feel guilty doing it during the weekday hours, those hours when I son is at school. Work has always been important to me, because I grew up watching my parents struggle desperately to keep the house and the car and the health insurance, and I never wanted to have that kind of life. I see work as a protection against financial ruin, marital destruction, and daily despair. Had I had a different kind of upbringing, I doubt that I would feel so much guilt pursuing passions that don’t pay the bills.

But we are all formed by our upbringing, of course, and despite the fact that I now enjoy a comfortable life, I can’t imagine ever getting past that feeling: “I must work well and hard, and I must do everything I can to make sure that the work pays off financially.” I like being able to give my son a level of comfort and security I never had. I like being able to go out to eat when I want, and to have a comfortable house in a safe neighborhood, and to take trips. I like being able to spend time with my husband and my child. All of these things matter to me, because all of these things that money can buy contribute to a feeling of well-being and a lessening of stress.

Work matters on so many levels. The best kind of work fulfills us and allows us to use our talents. The best kind of work pays enough that we do not always feel that our lives are on the brink of collapse. The best kind of work encourages us to make a contribution to the world, while contributing to the mental and financial well-being of ourselves and the ones we love.

What are your feelings about work? Have you found the right work for you, work that is meaningful on multiple levels? What standards does something have to meet in order for you to consider it work? How has your concept of work changed over the years?


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