Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Vocation and (Women's) Work

“To be true to one’s calling, whatever follies one might commit in one’s emotional life, that was the way to spiritual peace.”  Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night.

            Gaudy Night is a mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers featuring her famous detective hero Lord Peter Wimsey and Wimsey’s love interest, Harriet Vane (incidentally the Harriet of the blog’s title).  Harriet is, like the real-life Sayers, one of the earlier women to have graduated from Oxford, and there is a fascinating discussion towards the end of the novel on academic ethics and principles.
            The College Dean has mentioned a novel in which one academic discovers that another professor has deliberately falsified data in order to obtain his position at their university.  The man who discovers the truth, however, reveals it to no one, “because the other man is very badly off and has a wife and family to keep.”
            This is a group of female professors, discussing whether truth, and loyalty to truth, can and does come before considerations of family, financial obligations, etc.  It should perhaps be kept in mind that, at the time Sayers wrote this novel, there was still a very prevalent belief that learning somehow “turned” women’s heads.  In other words, rendered them unnatural; unnaturally callous towards children, husbands, and so on.
            The Warden presses the point:

            “A false statement is published and the man who could correct it lets it go, out of charitable considerations.  Would anybody here do that?  There’s your test case, Miss Barton, with no personalities attached.”
            “Of course one couldn’t do that,” said Miss Barton.  “Not for ten wives and fifty children.”
            “Not for Solomon and all his wives and concubines?  I congratulate you, Miss Barton, on striking such a fine, unfeminine note.  Will nobody say a word for the women and children?”
            (“I knew he was going to be mischievous,” thought Harriet.)
            “You’d like to hear it, wouldn’t you?” said Miss Hillyard.
            “You’ve got us in a cleft stick,” said the Dean.  “If we say it, you can point out that womanliness unfits us for learning; and if we don’t, you can point out that learning makes us unwomanly.”

            I don’t know why this novel has been on my mind, lately.  I find something both deeply comforting and disturbing about Harriet’s view, which is encapsulated in the opening quote:  “To be true to one’s calling, whatever follies one might commit in one’s emotional life, that was the way to spiritual peace.”
            Personally, the sentiment comforts me because I identify so strongly as a writer and it seems that no one can take that away from me.  Other desires that we have – and this of course includes many, many men in it as well – for instance to have a marriage and a family, a stable home for some, a well-knit community for most of us…  In a sense these are vocations over which we have very little control.  Devotion to work seems in some ways so simple
            But these other works – long-term relationships, children, stability, community – you can hurl yourself into them all you want, and simply have them not work out.  Your spouse might leave you, you might not be able to have children, you might be unfortunate enough to live in the community-starved United States, whatever.  Harriet’s thought is comforting, because insofar as the artist or scholar prioritizes their work, which is less susceptible to others’ whims and emotional variations, they can withstand these trials because they have something larger to devote themselves to.
One detail I find interesting here is that the work traditionally allotted to women seems to me the more unstable work because you need particular people there to do it for.  Though the Roman Catholic Church officially recognizes marriage as a vocation for both sexes, I would argue that most of us don’t tend to look at being a husband as a “job.”  It is something which good, dependable men do, and the women are lucky if they find someone who is faithful, or at least talented at covering up his infidelities.  His work is elsewhere, outside the realm of family.  The women’s work is, traditionally and for many women today, the family.
            But maybe I’m taking too romantic a notion of vocation here.  After all, most moderns don’t seem to have any vocation other than that of family and friends.  I would hardly ask anyone to regard being a financial analyst or an office manager as a vocation.  Isn’t it simply a job?  A person does their job, and then gladly clocks out to go and live their real life.  A nice clean separation between the thing you do to make a living, and the things you would rather be doing.
            Clearly there is often a distinction between the work we do to keep a roof over our heads and the work we take satisfaction in.  One pulls a paycheck; we can (and should) try to have a good attitude towards it, but aren’t we always happy to have a vacation?  The other is a band we’ve formed with friends, or the family life we are building, or whatever; this is the work we want to spend our vacation focusing on.  But here is the question posed by those Oxford women professors:  what if one unfits you for the other?  In other words, what if being a mother makes you unfit to be an intellectual and a scholar?  Or what if being an intellectual unfits you for being a mother?
            I hardly think most of us would believe this possible, but let me take this a little farther:  what if being a financial analyst or an office manager unfits you for your band/poetry/family life/etc.?  Doesn’t this happen?  I would argue even further that some of the so-called jobs we’ve created for writers and artists — such as being writing/art/music teachers and editors/curators/conductors — clearly unfit them for writing life.  What good can it possibly do an experienced and educated writer, who needs time and peace and quiet more than anything, to have to read and work with the fairly pathetic words of a bunch of undergraduate creative writing majors?  And how many editors keep writing at the end of the day, when they have effectively spent their whole day rewriting the works of others?
            Of course one can always try "to be true to one's calling."  Until confronted by the fact that one's emotional life (as well as its financial demands) almost forces itself into the center of your life, relegating the calling to the fringes.


  1. I relate to this struggle. This is a life-long wrestling match for me.

    I remember having a conversation with W.D. Snodgrass, when I was his research assistant in grad school. He had a very enviable gig for a writer, getting paid huge amounts to teach about two days a week.

    He knew it was a great deal, but he said if he didn't have that (the result of his winning the Pulitzer Prize fairly early in his career), he'd probably do something for a living that "used completely different muscles," like just being a construction worker.

    Of course, not all completely different jobs are helpful to writers. Some can be so draining, so demoralizing. So it's good to keep in mind the features that a writer really needs, like quiet for contemplation. There are so many novelists who have worked as janitors on the graveyard shift.

    I've gotten my career to the point where I'm actually getting paid for being a writer. It's a blessing and a curse. I really have to erect a strong wall between what I'm writing for other projects and MY writing.

    I can't make the living I need from this now, but the best job for my writing that I've ever had was opening envelopes for a bank. I sat there, running stacks of envelopes through a machine that would make a thin cut in the top. It was total dead-head work. I read Joyce's Ulysses that summer. I got home and wrote like a man hungry for writing.

    I wish this balance for you, Leigh. I hope that all of your life, family, love, work, all winds up supporting your writing.

  2. Man, I know what you mean about the completely different muscles. The best job for my writing was delivering on-campus mail 20 hours a week. I think I worked till three o'clock and then went home having spent the entire day being quiet and happily ignored and then sat down with enough energy to write (energy is always an issue for me).

    I am hoping very much to achieve some of the balance with a slightly larger financial payback. I definitely don't think I could ever be a full-time writer. I'm SO glad to hear that you do erect that wall to protect your own writing; that's exactly what I worry about. It sounds like fun to be a professional writer, but getting paid to write poetry or more "literary" fiction is tough.

  3. You said it, sister. It's beyond tough. I wrote screenplays for years, had pretty good connections, and I've still made more money from poetry than screenwriting (which is to say, $125 from King County for the poetry on busses program).

    I think the trick is to make a living in a way that doesn't destroy you, and to MAKE time to write, because no one will give that to you.

    I'm hoping your job as a yogi will expand into something like that for you. If not that, then something.

    Hope is good, as long as you stay busy while you're hoping...