Today my writing partner and I carpooled to Framingham State, where we spent a drizzly Saturday holding our own makeshift writing retreat. We’d done something similar last November, commandeering an empty classroom where we each claimed a spot to spread our laptops, notebooks, and snacks, committed to spending the day writing rather than compulsively checking email, mindlessly surfing the Web, or obsessing over our to-do lists. What we learned then still applies now: all you need to spend the day writing is a little peer pressure, a (relatively) distraction-free workspace, and the courage to carve out a day devoted to nothing but your own creative pursuits.
Last November, my writing partner and I had little trouble finding an empty, unlocked classroom in May Hall, the main academic building at Framingham State. Today, however, we found campus nearly abandoned, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend not being the most popular time for people to study, write, or otherwise work. After realizing the classrooms in May Hall were locked, my office in O’Connor Hall was in the process of being painted, and both the library and student center were closed, my writing partner and I claimed the couches and end tables that transform the hallway outside the English department secretary’s office into a makeshift student lounge. It wasn’t the workplace we’d envisioned, but it served our purposes, there being electrical outlets for our laptops, lots of natural light streaming through tall windows, a proliferation of potted plants, and hours of uninterrupted quiet.
Over lunch, my writing partner and I talked about how some folks think it’s strange that we choose to spend an entire day doing “nothing” but writing: what kind of wasteful, self-indulgent pursuit is that? Neither one of us is a “professional” writer, relying upon day jobs rather than our writing to keep us fed, and both of us struggle with the tension between writing to produce a “product” and writing as a kind of spiritual practice. If you write simply because you enjoy writing—if you write simply because it gives you a creative outlet you can’t find elsewhere—does it matter if you never produce a publishable, praise-winning, pay-earning piece?
Fittingly enough, one of the essays I worked on writing today compares Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Life Without Principle” with the Buddhist ideal of Right Livelihood, and I think Thoreau would have something to say on this tension between product and process. Thoreau’s thoughts on living and making a living have fascinated me for years, and the concept of Right Livelihood is one I perpetually struggle with: how do you achieve Right Livelihood when all the things that seem “right” to you don’t earn you a much of a “livelihood”? In re-reading Thoreau’s essay, I chuckled to encounter the following line:
If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.
If I were to spend a rainy day in May Hall grading stacks of student papers, my colleagues would praise (and perhaps marvel at) my productivity, but if I spend the day struggling to write an essay I’m not sure will ever see the eyes of an actual audience, I must be a bit “off.” Who spends hours crafting blog-posts that earn comments but no actual currency, or writing a book that might not ever be finished, much less published?
I have no doubt that Thoreau would have continued his “morning work” of writing in the morning and walking in the afternoon regardless of whether he was published or praised. During his lifetime, Thoreau was largely self-published: what living he earned came mainly from surveying and occasional lecturing, not book sales. But Thoreau kept writing because that’s what Thoreau did, so asking him not to write would be like asking the sparrows outside my window not to sing. Thoreau wrote not because he was pursuing the legitimacy that comes from producing a certain kind of product but because he believed the “aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get ‘a good job,’ but to perform well a certain work.”
I wish we lived in a world where the things that feel “right” to me—writing and teaching and living a sane, balanced life—earned a living wage; I wish we lived in a world where people like Thoreau didn’t seem counter-cultural or curmudgeonly. But at the end of a full day spent writing, I feel more energized, encouraged, and inspired than I do at the end of a full day spent grading. Tenure-track professors engage in research and academic publishing because it presumably keeps their teaching alive and well-informed: how can you be a good, inspiring teacher if you haven’t had an original insight or idea in ages? This, to me, is part of why I write, even though the bloggish, entirely non-academic essays I produce don’t earn me any legitimacy in the academy. I write because at the end of a rainy day spent with my laptop on an almost-empty campus, I feel like it’s been a day well-spent.