“The Blessing of Work”


… that’s what patriarch and mentor Mike Lennon called it.  It was an unusually cool afternoon at the June residency, and I had mentioned how my life was swelling with the obligations of classes and a play that felt red-hot at my fingertips – there was so much work to be done, and I saw it sprawling out before me like an ancient sea map.  Mike is the captain to know such a map, I realized, and his sage-like words were etched in salt and echoed through the surface fog.  He didn’t even seem to need the map anymore.  He knew its traps and treasures by heart.

Wilkes Creative Writing Residency - seated with Dr. J. Michael Lennon

More than two years later, I would learn that another navigator – this time of Broadway and Hollywood fame (two oceans with their own uncharted monsters, white whales, map-edges, and lands mysterious and perilous and full of buried gold) – the legendary Elia Kazan, had offered the same wisdom.  To a small cadre of actors and writers (Mailer among them), he said, “Here, we’re always talking about the work.  We talk about it piously.  We say the workThe work.  Well, we do work here, and get it straight: Work is a blessing.”  I understand now (now that I have my sea-legs) that this saying has never left me, and though clouded over on occasion, it has reemerged and taken that high spot in the sky: a star to my every wandering bark; a guiding light; that which I look to when searching for my true north.

Of course, today I work four jobs with some regularity.  This is not new to me.  In my as yet brief time on this mortal coil I have been more committed to the work which paid my bills, and kept my role of simple wordsmith as a hobby.  I have held the titles of (and been paid as) housepainter, plumber’s assistant, home electrician, carpenter, gardener, teacher, editor, camp counselor, bookseller, record store manager, graphic designer, researcher, office worker, set-builder for plays, and mover.  Many of these positions were held simultaneously and in too many permutations to even list; all of them merciless in their demands.  So, I am a workaholic – out of necessity and a secret denial of that basic American instinct that tells us all to be a couch potato.  But the tide is turning – four jobs now and I find myself tired by the end of the day, but not without the time and the will to sit down and, as Guy de Maupassant said, “put black on white.”

Why the sea change?

Bukowski also worked at the track...

I’ve begun to create a list in my head of all of the odd-jobs that great authors held, some of which allowed them to write – all of which added to the gestalt of their experience and no doubt informed their subjects.  Arthur Miller wrote plays during his long dark nights as a security guard, Steinbeck spent his California days as a fruit-picker and surveyor, Bukowski worked in the post-office (a place that once promised a level of job ‘security’ and provided him with the title & subject matter of his first novel – Factotum is another work which offers up his endless string of odd-jobs as the penultimate in starving artistry), and countless authors today must make ends meet as ghostwriters.  James Jones was ready for his success.  He could enjoy it, but had been through hell and back as a soldier (a job which I’m not likely suited for, but considered – as a former retail boss once put it to me: “you’re a good worker, but you don’t take orders well”).

I guess was never looking to be an immediate success.  I’ve made peace with my patchwork career choice, for now, and would rather be anonymous and wildly creative while I can.  To roar as a literary lion too early means quick alienation: there are fewer shadows to observe from, fewer dinner-party and department store chats to overhear, and less honesty in the world – if any at all.  These jobs – all of them – have colored my writing.  I’ve even found that writing can be seen through the lens of each new position and experience to come.

One day I may find myself to be captain of my own vessel, or even admiral of my own fleet.  Should I have a sea shanty to work by and a star to set my compass points to, I will not doubt the orientation of my map.  Then will I lift the oars and count my blessings.

7 Responses to ““The Blessing of Work””

  1. Bill Prystauk Says:

    My first writing job after grad school came about in marketing. I had risen above thirty-two others to secure the position. When I asked my supervisor, “Why me?”, he said, “You’ve had a variety of different jobs. That means you can handle anything.”

    Today, I continue to use the many different jobs I’ve held to my creative writing advantage: restaurant counter help, cook, disc jockey, front desk clerk, reservationist, police officer (injured during the academy and had to resign), Coast Guard reservist, vacuum cleaner salesman, band manager, adversitising coordinator, marketing specialist and teacher.

    I never know who I’m going to meet next and what I’m going to learn that may inspire my writing.

  2. Lori Myers Says:

    Well, I don’t have the list of jobs and odd jobs that the two of you have had (for me, babysitter, switchboard operator, legal secretary, customer complaint receiver, market researcher, actress, theater producer), but I tossed and turned on my career highway until I finally came back to what I wanted to do in the first place – write. As a consequence, I wake up every morning lucky and scared out of my wits. But you’re right, Matt, any job tangent is fodder; any unrelated experience a goldmine. My only regret is that I never worked as a waitress.

    • matthewhinton Says:

      Don’t give up hope, Lori; I could see you as a waitress – all cigarette dangle and memorized specials and muttered grit. You’d make a killing! Switchboard operator is a great job listing, too! You have the voice for such a venture. Maybe there’s a one-act in all this… Put your hair up in a bee-hive and burn one with bacon!

  3. Bill Says:

    I’m with, Matt. Lori, try out the waitress gig at the greasy spoon near you. Who knows what prose it will unleash!

  4. kindalikeapoet Says:

    And the work is tiring but as I say, “It’s a good kind of tired.” Thanks for this inspiration, Matt. It was right on time for me.

  5. October 2010 – The Write Life Says:

    […] Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments » […]

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