Issue 45: Art unmakes the world made by work
I made two big changes at the beginning of this year. I took on a new management role at my company and I set concrete writing intentions to put more of my work out into the world.
The new job has been fulfilling and demanding. It’s been tempting to work longer hours and can be difficult to step away emotionally when the day is done. But then I remember I have a second shift. A typical day for me: sign off from my job at 6pm, cook and eat dinner, procrastinate on TikTok, then write. I’m grateful for having my writing as a space just for me, to be able to turn to creativity. But it’s also a kind of work, and I am wondering how sustainable this is.
Although I spent the past few months reflecting and talking with friends and mentors to arrive at these conclusions, I’ve now started to think about the deeper factors in my decision-making. Why have I decided to structure my life like this?
I read Having and Being Had by Eula Biss a few weeks ago and throughout the book, she considers the value and practice of art, and how it fits within (and pushes against) the American value systems of work and money. When confessing to a fellow professor how she’d like to quit her job in order to have more time to write, she explains, “Work, in fact, is interfering with my work, and I want to work less so that I can have more time to work. I need another word.” I’ve been turning this quote over in my head ever since.
Biss notes that her “writing sometimes has market value, but it has never paid the rent.” However, she doesn’t measure the worth of her work in dollars. In a conversation with her sister about how artists should be paid, she admits, “If I were paid wages for the work of making art, then everything I do would be monetized, everything I do would be subject to the logic of this economy. And if art became my job, I’m afraid that would disturb my universe.”
Perhaps that is what I am most afraid of—disturbing my universe.
Weike Wang’s excellent essay “Notes on Work” dives deeply into many of the same Chinese American and immigrant anxieties I harbor around work, namely a “fear of poverty and fear of regression.” My parents came to the States as grad students with $50 between them while white teenagers complained that they shouldn’t teach English composition because they were from China. It’s through my parents’ work that I even have the luxury of writing this newsletter and thinking about these things. My parents are supportive of my writing and have even asked if I might pursue an MFA, but it is hard for me to fully step out of a “safe but narrow definition of reputable work.”
I admire those artists who take up and quit jobs to fit their writing and I sometimes wonder if I’m not taking my own art seriously enough if I’m not willing to take those same kinds of risks. But I also remember my own history and priorities, and how those have instilled in me a deep pragmatism.
There are many ways to be a writer. But some paths will require more work than others because, as Wang writes, “the obvious but tedious fact is that some of us are conditioned to work much harder than others because some of us have a lot more to prove.”
I have accepted that my current routine, though tiring at times, is the one that best fits my life and my values right now. In the meantime though, essays like Wang’s are helpful for me to reflect on—and perhaps change—the way I approach my writing and help prevent me from teetering into overwork. It also helps me understand and advocate for broader policies or practices that might change the environment in which I (and many others) make decisions about balancing different types of work. Finally, I remind myself of the reason I’m committed to writing in the first place with this quote from Eula Biss:
Maybe the value of art, to artists and everyone else, is that it upends other value systems. Art unmakes the world made by work.
- I’ve been revisiting Ilya Kaminsky’s poem “We Lived Happily During the War." Here’s Kaminsky on Ukrainian, Russian, and the language of war: “Is language a place you can leave? Is language a wall you can cross? What is on the other side of that wall?”
- SmokeLong Quarterly is running a “superworkshop” for the flash community this summer (May 30-August 28) with various pricing levels.
- A conversation with Cathy Park Hong from 2016 on art as a form of protest and the different ways political engagement in writing can look like: “A lot of the artwork, or a lot of the writing, becomes important afterwards, when we look back. That’s a very old-fashioned idea of art as witness, art as a document, but that’s really important.”
- “A Brief Guide on How to Get Your Creative Work Seen, Funded, and Supported” by Eva Recinos
- Sign up for Ann Friedman and Jade Chang’s two-session online Ideas Workshop! I took a version of this class a few years ago in person and learned so much about idea generation and development.
Recent reads & other media
E and I watched Inventing Anna and J.Lo’s new rom com, Marry Me (I was pleasantly surprised by the Peoria representation, even if it didn’t make sense). We also finished the second season of PEN15, which captures all the cringe, pain, and tenderness of being in seventh grade. I enjoyed Rachel Syme’s interview with the show’s co-creators, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, as well as Inkoo Kang’s essay on PEN15 for its groundbreaking depiction of Asian American girlhood.
I’ve also been loving Abbott Elementary on ABC/Hulu, a new sitcom about the teachers at an underfunded West Philadelphia elementary school. Although it’s in its first season, it feels really well-formed and draws from the best elements of Parks and Rec, The Office, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
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~ meme myself and i ~
Watching too much Inventing Anna. Husky’s snowball collection. Hardworking boba duck returns with a soundtrack. Gen Z Seinfeld. Clearly not a robot. Celebrities on TikTok: Gritty + Uncut Gems, Guy Fieri + Phoebe Bridgers.