Saturday, March 19, 2022

writers and value

Because I've been writing and reading for what seems like forever, I sometimes think it's not a thing of value. Or maybe more that it is valuable on an intellectual level, but not a monetary one. A capitalistic, economic one.  In light of, of course, investing tens of thousands of dollars on an education devoted to it, it's an extremely skewed view.  Because yes, obviously writing and words have value.  Otherwise we wouldn't do the things we do, read the things we read, write the things we write.

That value has always been an intangible thing.  We graduate from our lit programs and our creative writing degrees (I have both) and what do we do in this world where it seems nothing in our years of writing papers and reading books and penning poems applies to a world where other skills (clerical, sales, etc.) apply?  I hit the ground hard and rolled a few times post grad school and wound up in a library job--a job that was very fulfilling but exhausting, paid terribly, and I'm pretty sure planted me in a string of elementary school library clerks who revolved yearly. So for a year and a little more, I was running on a love of books, and hopefully instilling it in kids, and that was great. Pretty much the only skills I required were an ability to  keep a class in line and read a story, and I was good at it.  To check out books--either initially, old school by hand on tiny cards like when I was still in school, or later, on a computer right before I left. To shelve returns and make displays.  I did get to do some fun bulletin boards and reading enticements, and helped judge the district-wide creative writing contest. But I was so poor and perpetually exhausted from the early start-time.  So I soon landed at Columbia, where I spent the next 21 years.  I was hired as a circ clerk basically, and over time, expanded into other areas--course reserves, ILL, as others left, and then eventually all of these things for a while (mind you, in a department that was once 7 dwindled down to 2 or 3.) In the first decade. it was easy enough, and for a time, didn't pull my focus from creative things. Until it did.  It paid poorly, but so many writers I knew had worse fates--adjuncting and bartending and barrista-ing. I liked the college as a community, I liked most of my co-workers. I was able to get an MFA at a discount.   There seemed to be worse ways to spend ones days.  I can't say my writing skills helped or hindered me beyond the ability to write a good email to staff or faculty. 

But I also wanted to do rewarding things with my time there, and there seemed such a vacuum of things I COULD do in terms of programming and exhibits and making the library a cool, creative space, and we did.  For a while. And it definitely made use of whatever skills I have--communication, project development, organization.  even writing, which seemed like was always just a thing everyone could do with a good WP program, was my strength.  Visual design was my strength. I liked doing these things--things which more closely resembled things I was doing outside my day job / night job with the press. And sometimes they totally complimented each other--in terms of skills, programming opportunities, networking. They were great, except, unofficial, I didn't get paid for them. Nor for the extra more mundane work. Nor, because of union difficulties, even a cost-of-living raise for a few years. Nor was I earning market value for anything I did officially, let alone, doing them all at once. Despite discussions of rewriting and reclassifying positions we spent wasted hours on that never happened and did not, in the next few years, seem like they were going to.   But then also, as more and more of the work fell into my lap, as I still claimed more and more in the interest of doing that more rewarding, creative work, something began to crack. They began to effect my enjoyment of everything--those library things, my creative work, the press / shop work. I was burnt out on all fronts since around early 2019, but I refused to see it. 

It did not help that I continued on, in that state, with the hope and the carrot that things would get better.  But they didn't, and not for a lack of trying on anyone's part, especially mine, but covid drove a stake into a lot of things. The college had always been a vampire that would take and take and give very little, but was more so by fall of 2020.  A new title that better represented my role was off the table.  Any sort of raise. Also, no new hires that would help with the deluge of regular things or like, make it easy to take vacations or sick days. I started doing, and getting asked to do,  more web-based work--exhibits and social media coordination, things I knew I was far, far below pay grade for. What had always been an inequity between library-degreed staff and non-degreed (I have two masters but neither is an MLS) became more and more ridiculous in how the pandemic was handled.  As I came back from that initial lockdown, where I was reconsidering all my life choices, I thought to myself, I'll give it a year.  And then a year later, last summer, just a few more months. Maybe it will change, or maybe I just need to change. 

I also felt stuck. If I had to work somewhere at all, there was nothing wrong with where I was. Except there was.  But what did I have in the way of marketable skills to the world?  But scrolling those sites, it did seem like people needed things I could do.  Things I'd been doing for free and eagerly all these years. Writing. Design. Website Stuff. All the things I did just for my own interests and creativity, goddamn, people were willing to pay for! This would be obvious for anyone who didn't have major imposter syndrome like I do sometimes. Someone who always new I wanted to be a poet, but that, when you think about entry fees and submission costs and the financial output of being a writer in this particular genre, always seems to COST more than it earns. Maybe my perception as an artist was what was broken-of my own skills and abilities and what I had to offer.

Something also had to give, because it was effecting those outside things--the creative things that were the point of the working--so that I could DO those things. It was ruining my attitudes toward poetry, towards the press, both of which I regularly thought about abandoning. But I was looking at the wrong things. Blaming the wrong culprit in my own unhappiness. By October, because I felt I had to have options, I was scrolling freelance sites and thinking maybe I could do this.  Go out on my own.  Expand the shop back to the levels it was a decade ago and make up the difference with contract work. By Thanksgiving, I had made my decision. The past month and a half, not a day goes by that I don't sigh contentedly and think it was the best decision--even though I spent all last autumn making pro and con lists and freaking out about starving and hustling and backing myself out of what felt inevitable for both my creative and emotional health. 

It was not a cakewalk, of course.  I worried about not having savings (a problem actually remedied by being unable to take vacations due years of to under staffing--the payout gave me a decent cushion of a couple months living expenses in case things were slower out of the gate.) Also, health insurance, which is not cheap, but do-able, especially when you factor in changes in commuting costs and takeout I spent money on while working downtown. Also, just worrying about being too isolated and hermit-like, and missing people, and abandoning people I didn't want to screw over. Also just leaving somewhere that was a good portion of my adult life. Barring a handful of years in my early 20's, almost all of it. But, then again,  this post is not about the library, but more so, valuing my skills. So much of what I do never feels like it's marketable, but maybe I was wrong and just existed in spaces where it seemed like it was worth little. Even when I used those skills to win big awards and all sorts of library programming shinies I wasn't getting paid for. 

My days usually start now with freelance writerly things in the first few hours and editing/design work in the afternoons. While I've sold art & design & book things online for years, this whole getting paid to write thing is a delight and something I've never felt, so it's extra exciting that I get to do it.  That I can do it.  That someone actually, you know, wants to give me money for doing something that almost feels like breathing. Something I want to do anyway.   That is entirely new. Somewhere there is a lesson here for writers about valuing your work and the things you are able to do that not everyone else, at least non-writers, cannot. 

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