By Alissa Wilkinson
I work everywhere. I read in bars, write on airplanes, scribble notes in movies. Most of my closest friends, I’ve realized, are people with whom I work, or have worked. My life is structured by my work.
So I raised an eyebrow when I started reading Donald Hall’s slim memoir Life Work, which begins, “I’ve never worked a day in my life.”
Donald Hall, Life Work
The evidence of Hall’s lifelong work extends past just this book. He’s had a long career, winning or being nominated for nearly everything an American poet can be awarded, including United States Poet Laureate. Life Work is only one of six memoirs he’s written, in addition to twenty-two books of poetry, four biographies, three plays, two volumes of short stories, two textbooks, eleven children’s books (the most famous one is Ox-Cart Man, which most children know from the TV show Reading Rainbow), and hundreds of reviews and essays.
Hall works hard.
There is much about Life Work that I love, but most of all, I love Hall’s dogged attention to a single point: what is work, and how does it change and structure our lives? Structured as a diptych, the book begins with an essay that feels full of joy and gratefulness for the gift of work.
Alissa Wilkinson in a Paris bookstore
After his bold first statement, he circles around to explain that it’s not so much that he hasn’t worked as that he hasn’t labored a day in his life. He’s started down that path by the second page: “There are jobs, there are chores, and there is work . . . When I finished reading and correcting and grading . . . then—as a reward—I could get to work.” Then he writes on his process, remembers work his grandfather did, and gives us an exuberant recounting of his “best day,” and near the end, he concludes, with the help of the Bible and Hannah Arendt: “Maybe labor is the fall, not work . . . Culture’s thrust has twisted our language: ‘From the standpoint of “making a living,” every activity unconnected with labor becomes a “hobby.”’”
Soon, however, he concludes: “I realized I had always worked—the real thing, the absorbedness—against death.” Then he pauses before beginning the second half, both a darker, sadder counterpart to his more exuberant meditations and proof that his thesis still stands: work, when you love it, is not work—it is a way of grasping for life.
Where the first essay was full of life, the second knows death is hovering around the corners, and it begins, “These last words I wrote more than a week ago, and I wrote them on a Friday without consciousness of anxiety . . . We drove home . . . to find a message on the machine; I should call my internist Dr. Clark. He had bad news.” And then this: “When I come out from anaesthetic, back in my room after the sojourn in ICU, I will open my eyes to ask Jane what they found. She will not lie to me.”
As he is treated for his cancer, Hall writes the second half of the book, and in some of the most interesting passages, he looks at the work of the women in his family (particularly his grandmother), as well as the work of his father, who hated what he did and whose work reduced him, apparently, to a shell of a man. When I first read the book, I wondered why he chose to focus on these in his essay. Although his father’s dismal experience seems of a piece with the darker tone of this half, I pondered: Is traditional woman’s work somehow more laden with sorrow, in his mind, than man’s work? He makes statements about how little it had been appreciated: “[My grandmother] worked like my grandfather the sixteen-hour day and the six-day week. When she was forty-four years old, the United States and the State of New Hampshire, in generous condescension, decided to allow her to vote.”
And more generally, including not just farmers’ wives but women of means in this dark picture, he says, “Thus as the farms broke up—where women worked in equality with men—men lacked jobs, poor women were exploited, and their prosperous sisters languished in an idleness without purpose.” Work is not all joy; this memoir-as-diptych pays its dues to the fall, to work made into labor, as well.
In this second half, he also returns more frequently and in short bursts, paragraphs or so, to his illness—in one place he literally interrupts himself after a sentence about his grandfather (“In the winter Wesley chopped cordwood on the mountain”) to talk about the work he’s trying to complete while living as what he calls morituri (about to die). And then he picks up the flow with the same sentence. This interrupted stream mirrors the distracted state of mind he’s experiencing as he can feel his time to complete his beloved work ending. It’s effective, and disturbing to the reader. We feel anxious, too.
Alissa Wilkinson in an academic conversation
Even at the end of his book, Hall is making plans for future work: he thinks he will not make long works any more (though it turns out that he did anyway), but he will continue to write short works and poems, and anyhow, it is all of a piece, all “life work”: “There is only one long-term project,” he says.
What I love about Life Work is that it’s all about the work of writing, and what it is to love work, love writing, love reading. Hall wakes up in the middle of the night excited to get started on the day’s work and, like a child on Christmas Eve, has to keep himself in bed until the clock says he can finally get up. Weird? Or amazing? I can’t decide. Usually when I wake up that early, I just want to sleep longer.
Yet I love my work, which is like Hall’s, writing and reading and teaching and editing. I didn’t grow up in a community where I saw many people love their work, so it can be hard for me to accept the gift of pleasure, joy, and deep satisfaction I receive from my work. I have some of the stereotypical Puritan in me, and so a voice in my head tells me dourly that if you like work, it should be because you have evolved to some higher plane and can find enjoyment in labor by somehow transcending the actçnot because you enjoy the work itself.
There’s a place for labor, of course (and all of my work requires a good deal of dishwashing and grading and things of that sort), but most everything I do connects with my “work” in some way. So when someone sees me reading a book on a holiday and asks me if it’s work, and I say, well, yes, it is, but it’s really interesting—when that happens, I know what they’re often saying: you’re working on a holiday, you’ve got problems. But Life Work reminds me that finding pleasure in reading and writing things—in working—may just mean I’ve found my vocation, and it is what I love.
In that sense, Hall’s book has redeemed my idea of work for me. And so I revisit Life Work frequently.
Alissa Wilkinson teaches English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City and is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Seattle Pacific University. You can friend her, follow her, or link with her, or you can just read her blog. Alissa was the founding editor of Fieldnotes Magazine (2012-2013).
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