On Creative Labor

woman writing a letter
Woman Writing a Letter, Gerard Terborch, c. 1655. CC image via Wikipaintings.org.

As Labor Day approaches, I’ve been thinking about the way I work, particularly as it applies to writing. I do a lot of writing and editing for the Day Job: program descriptions, label copy, marketing copy, social media, blog posts, etc. Those are creative endeavors but they’re also products of work with defined outputs and timelines.

When I write fiction, it can be much more challenging to meet self-imposed goals and deadlines. It takes activating a source of creative labor that is much less easily defined and often uncontrollable.

And that’s okay.

In his 1979 book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, Lewis Hyde describes the difference between work and creative labor as such:

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus–these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify… Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors. Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule. (emphasis mine)

When framed this way, it’s much easier to deal with how my writing ebbs and flows. Whether it’s in fits and starts or so encompassing that nothing else matters but getting words on the page, it’s all valuable. There’s no one way to write, no magic formula that makes it happen any differently. I’m not saying you shouldn’t set goals or benchmarks. But when you’re too focused on the “work” and not the “labor”, it’s easy to forget the pure joy that comes from creating.





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