Work, identity, and what you know

The other day, my sister-in-law observed that often the work we do is a big part of our identity–how we see and feel about ourselves. I thought about that, and I realized that a big part of my work identity has been showing up and working hard. More than the specific job title or project, I’ve been the person who gets up every day, Monday through Friday, and goes to work. That’s been a part of who I am.

That reminded me of Donald Hall’s book Life Work, in which he writes that work is necessary for all of us. He talks about his mother sewing and canning even though she didn’t need to–in her generation, she could go to the store. She “worked out of habit’s necessity not out of necessity’s habit.” I thought about my distant cousin who, while an invalid, made intricate, gossamer-thin doilies. Exquisite handwork. Not essential to the household, but necessary for her, giving her a way to contribute.

I also thought about Hall’s grandfather–his trick of luring the cows back to the barn with millet or a sweet grass. He had a lifetime of knowledge and he used it. Good work means using what we know to do things, to get things done, a kind of creativity.

Thinking about knowledge led me to Sarah Kay’s TED talk, the part where she talks about finding 10 things that you know to be true or should have learned by now.

I pare it down and change it to 3 things about me that I know are true.

1. Words are my medium. I love to read–to enter different worlds, or to learn new things, or both at the same time. I love to write–and I need to write poetry. I learned that during September’s novel experiment. Four weeks in, I had to take a break and work on poems. I haven’t tried to take a month off from reading poetry, and I don’t intend to.

2. I like to solve problems and puzzles. That was the satisfying part about writing help. I didn’t think I was saving the world, but I hoped I was making someone’s day go a little easier.

3. I like to learn new things. As much as I love a routine, it’s true that every good job I’ve had began as something new to me (my only previous experience being my work with words).

4. (Bonus) Little dogs make me smile.

These days, my work is to look for a job, to write poems, to finish those last 3,000 words of my novel’s first draft. I show up.

And today I was called “the official poet laureate” of the vegetable stand. Not bad.

What’s your best work, and what are you working on now?

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1 comment

  1. Sylvia Vaughn’s avatar

    What I consider my best work is so often vastly different from what audience members tell me they like; editors, too! What I’m trying to puzzle out now is how my experiences have shaped me, and how best to reflect that in my poems while still trying to strike a universal chord.

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