On Work and Writing
What does it mean to be a working writer and teacher?
Work is a good thing – one of the best things in my life, I have found: to do good work, work that uses my mind and imagination and strength to the fullest. Writing is a great joy in this regard: seeing ideas take shape before me, discovering more fully what I really mean even as I write.
Work is a good thing, instituted by God before the Fall: Adam tended the garden (and thus did good work in the cultivation of beauty – something to aspire to). It was not work itself that fell to Adam and Eve as a curse upon their sin and expulsion from Eden, but toil – that aspect of work that is unfruitful, depressing, grinding, depleting.
In our fallen world, even good work has its elements of toil. (To take a light example, I joyfully work at writing an analytical piece, but I toil at managing its footnotes.) But I would also say that all toil can be redeemed as good work if the task at hand is done well, and done to the glory of God. I cannot say that I have always lived up to this; in fact, I have often failed to do so, and failed as well to recognize the good work implicit in the toil of others. But one blessing of work is that there is always more to do, and so each day’s work is a chance to do it right – today.
As a writer and a teacher, I must always remember that this is my work, and I am charged with doing it well and to the glory of God. My own joy in it is His gift; my dedication to doing the work well is but the recognition of that unearned, undeserved gift.
I am of New England stock, running back many generations: Yankee farmers and mill-workers, who sunk deep roots into the rocky, recalcitrant soil of Massachusetts, and made a living and raised their families on hard work. I went off to college, and then to graduate school, picking up on that strand of the family history that produced schoolteachers. Now I work with words and ideas, writing and teaching and lecturing, rather than picking apples or working a shift at a paper mill. I used to think that this separated me from my roots, but now I think this is true only in the sense that a branch is separate from the hidden tap-roots. I am in part who I am because of those Yankee farmers, and before them, the courageous immigrants who came on boats to Ellis Island (on my father’s side) and Plymouth Rock (on my mother’s side).
My own journey has in some ways been a returning, though I did not know it at the time: a return to the faith of my family roots, to my great-grandparents (Protestant on the one side, Roman Catholic on the other). Affirming my Christian faith in the Anglican tradition was a joy to me first because of my affection for the Anglican poets whose words drew me to know Christ, and then because of the richness and beauty and depth of meaning I found there; but it also takes me back further, from New England to the England of my ancestors.
And so now I begin to understand something about the nature of work – to see that in the English poetry I love, and in the farms and mills of Massachusetts where my family has its roots, there is something in common, some deep essential vision of doing the good work that has been placed before me. I pray that I may continue to live out that vision.