Play/Work: Musings

In one of my favorite books, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, her invented anarchist language has no word for work. Instead, it’s the same word for “play.” If a task is pure drudgery, then there’s another word for that which isn’t associated with the word for work/play.

From a young age, I decided to become a writer. I sent out my first short story (and received my first rejection slip) at age twelve. At thirteen, I wrote my first novel and haven’t looked back. I bought lots of craft books, some of which were only helpful very early in my writing career, and some which stayed on my shelf, like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Dave King. I loved and still love those early characters and stories that came from daydreaming at my desk. Some of those characters are still knocking around in my head, asking to be written. I work/played at LOT.

This early leaning toward working a lot definitely gave me a leg up when it came to academia. I had that drive to jump through hoops necessary for the difficult, and often predatory, aspects of an academic career. But I also loved what I was doing. I loved teaching. I loved assigning texts for my students and writing up discussion question. I loved writing academic papers. I loved all the new books I discovered.

I didn’t have words for play/work, and the fact I’m pulling this term from a made up anarchist language speaks to the fact the concept is difficult to grasp here in the US with our capitalist-driven productivity language. In the novel, there are times where the main character Shevek, a physicist, has long stretches of play/work in his physics research where he must be reminded to eat, to go outside. He also has long instances where he does other kinds of work, such as physical labor–building or farming. These are all play/work.

I immediately related to this aspect of Shevek because I’d also had stretches where I’d worked on a project for eight, ten, twelve hour stretches for weeks at a time. I produced novels that crossed 100k words or entirely revised short stories as part of my workshop portfolio. I did the work because it was play, but people said I was working too much or being a workaholic.

I always felt confusion over their comments because I tried to celebrate their writing, why didn’t they celebrate mine? Was I doing something wrong? Was I being a bad community member by working “too hard”? Had I somehow become part of the capitalist machine of productivity? This really messed with my head until I read The Dispossessed.

This isn’t to dismiss issues of burnout or overworking. This is definitely a problem in academia and life in general as US culture connects product with worth. But I’d already wrestled with this psychological issues. My worth wasn’t wrapped up in how much I wrote (though I do still struggle with that particular issue from time to time, as I suspect, most authors do).

Perhaps to my classmates and colleagues, it did appear I was a workaholic–who knows. But I felt like Shevek in those moments of intense work/play. I was in my element. Was I tired? Yes. Did I wrestle with my work/play? Yes. But I loved it. I loved to be in the midst of that struggle and creation–I still do. It’s my favorite part of the process.

Again, I’m not promoting more work or saying we should let members of our community work themselves to oblivion. Rather, when I see a friend working hard or they express the amount of work they are doing, I try to sense in them if this is potentially a dangerous amount of “productivity” or if this is a season of intense work/play.

After my MFA, I would say to myself that I had to be careful because others had convinced me I was a workaholic, but as I worked on a paper about The Dispossessed and reread it several times, I came to reframe my creativity. What others hadn’t understood was that it was all work/play. Instead, by listening and convincing myself there was something “wrong” with how I worked, that I was somehow supporting capitalism and burnout culture, I struggled to manage what came after those intense times of work/play and felt guilt that I had “burned out.” Not guilt for being “burned out” but rather guilt that I’d believed in the productivity lie.

Here’s the thing–I don’t think I did. In The Dispossessed, Shevek often balances those moments of research and creation with community work afterward. He did physical labor to help terraform the desert environment or started a radio co-op–a different type of work/play. As I’ve been coming to understand this give and take, this work/play, I stopped saying I had a tendency to be a workaholic. Instead, after my last intense session of work/play when I read 200+ books for my comprehensive exams and then wrote 70+ pages about those books, I knew I would need to come down after that intense endeavor. This time I knew my work/play wasn’t workaholic habits but rather a good time, an intense time. But now the work was done, so I changed the subject of my work/play and: baked bread, cooked, hiked, read whatever I wanted, played 100+ hours of Assassin’s Creed. When that time of work/play started to feel stale, ready for a change, I returned to my next long projects–dissertation and a new novel.

Perhaps these musings are all to say I wonder if our artistic communities could benefit from thinking of work/play as the same thing. I don’t say this to encourage more “work” or more “productivity.” But rather than rolling our eyes at someone who creates more than us, rather than feeling it a competition, or saying “you’re working too much” or “you’re working an awful lot” (even if it is out of concern), rather, can we recognize the joy that can come from those intense times of work/play?

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