Finding Livelihood

Frederick Buechner, in his book, Wishful Thinking (1973), says, “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This must be the most quoted definition of vocation in contemporary literature on calling and work, the only problem being that it isn’t really true. It’s a good line, and it sounds good when you’re 19 (it did to me), but easy acceptance of this phrase is quickly challenged by the question of “what happens when the world’s hunger requires something of me I am not glad to give?” A glance at scripture, at history, at your own life and the lives of those around you, reveals that it is a matter of when, not if, you will be asked to give something that hurts rather than provides gladness if you are to follow God’s calling in a broken world. When you’re 19 this reality is perhaps less clear (and not particularly welcome as you plot your glorious plan for your life).

Since I love Buechner, I should note that less frequently referenced is his “Memoir of Vocation,” Now and Then (1983), a book that offers a more nuanced exploration of calling and the lived experience of work. In Now and Then Buechner doesn’t describe the easy convergence of personal gladness and worldly need, but instead describes a journey of wrong turns, of frustration, of set backs, of confusion, of minor victories, in the pursuit of his calling. The most famous quote of that book suggests that in listening to our life the “boredom and pain” of life is no less holy, no less a gift of grace, than its “gladness.” And many find as they grow older that boredom and pain may be the defining features of their working lives, rather than deep gladness.

Nancy Nordenson’s Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure speaks to this reality as she explores what meaning can be drawn from the “shadow side” of work, its boredom and frustrations, of trying to navigate the “tension of your planned life and your given life.” It’s less about finding work that will fulfill our deepest desires and more a meditation on searching for “signs of transcendent reality and participating in that reality, even when work fails to satisfy.” It is a book about work and vocation “for grown-ups, “as the promotional copy puts it, for “who but a very small minority” Nordenson asks “can find the exact intersection [of deep gladness and deep hunger] and feed a family? Or at that sweet spot sustain their position for a lifetime?”

In a series of “lyric” essays, Nordenson enters into the details of a working life (she earns her living as a freelance medical writer) that often get glossed over in more abstract and theoretical descriptions of work: meeting deadlines, the pain of being laid off, the frustrations of the job search, of doing work that seems disconnected from “my calling,” of the bills that show up in the mailbox every month and the alarm clock that rings every day. The figures Nordenson references are not the latest productivity gurus, nor the latest behavioral economics studies, but figures like Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Josef Pieper.

This is not a how-to guide, or a book stuffed with answers to the dilemmas many (most, if the statistics concerning work satisfaction are any guide) people face with regard to work. The lyric style Nordenson uses relies on a “nonlinear structure, white space, metaphor and a slant-angle perspective. It is a way of exploring, not a way of explaining.” It requires and rewards patience, and leaves the reader with plenty of work to do on her own. It is this style that lets Nordenson explore some areas of work that other more “explanatory” books do not, even if my one complaint with the book is that I did feel as though some of the essays lost a certain amount of momentum and direction. My favorite essays were likely the “Summa Laborum” chapters, modeled on the rhetorical structure of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. The structure of those particular chapters gives shape to Nordenson’s reflections as she starts with questions like “Should money be excluded from a discussion about the meaning of work?” and works through reasons to answer yes, or no.

Finding Livelihood is a vulnerable book, a book that displays its doubts and bewilderment in a way theological reflections are not often willing to risk. It is a book that is honest about the wrestling that occurs as we try and find our way in the world of work with its many kinds: “the work of earning a living, creating, serving; the work of looking for work. The work of marriage. Raising children. … The work of play. The work of the church. Laundry. The preparing of food. What should we call the work happening inside of us?” A reader who is living in the “tension between passion and need, between aspiration and limits, between the planned life and the given life” may find Nordenson’s contemplative essays a welcome companion along the way.

Freelancing, “Office Occupations” and the Writing Life

Writing for the press cannot be recommended as a permanent resource to anyone qualified to accomplish anything in the higher departments of literature or thought: not only on account of the uncertainty of this means of livelihood, especially if the writer has a conscience, and will not consent to serve any opinions except his own; but also because the writings by which one can live are not the writings which themselves live, and are never those in which the writer does his best. Books destined to form future thinkers take too much time to write, and when written come, in general, too slowly into notice and repute, to be relied on for subsistence. Those who have to support themselves by their pen must depend on literary drudgery, or at best on writings addressed to the multitude; and can employ in the pursuits of their own choice, only such time as they can spare from those of necessity; which is generally less than the leisure allowed by office occupations, while the effect on the mind is far more enervating and fatiguing. For my own part I have, through life, found office duties an actual rest from the other mental occupations which I have carried on simultaneously with them. They were sufficiently intellectual not to be a distasteful drudgery, without being such as to cause any strain upon the mental powers of a person used to abstract thought, or to the labour of careful literary composition.

The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill – courtesy of Alan Jacobs’ Pinboard. Some alternative titles for this post, (for me at least): “Be careful what you wish for,” “Get on with it already,” and “But, maybe you’re simply delusional.”

Life after Life

(Warning, I guess? Minor spoilers concerning Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life follow)

Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books are sharply plotted, funny, and dark, filled with fierce, intelligent, and damaged women. Really, to call them “Jackson Brodie” books is a bit of a misnomer: Brodie tends to act more as the (scruffy, charming, irresponsible) cog that keeps the precise machinery of the plots rolling, and the focus of the books rests much more on the victims of the crimes he investigates. Part of the reason I find the books appealing is that they are deeply concerned with ethics, with making things right, or (more common in Atkinson) the impossibility of doing so.

Life after Life foregrounds this question of what it would mean to “make things right”: quite literally allowing the main character, Ursula (another of Atkinson’s fierce, intelligent, damaged women) to try again and again (and again) to live her life in an attempt to get things right in a murky sort of reincarnation/eternal recurrence scenario (at first it appears Ursula does not realize she is living her life over and over, beyond a sort of vague sense of dread and deja vu, but as the book goes on she seems to become more aware of what is happening). It’s a well-written book, and many readers like it much more than I did, and I’m pleased Atkinson has a larger readership as a result. At on level, part of my dislike has to do with the darkness of the book (YMMV): in none of Ursula’s various lives is she ever granted much happiness by her author, and some of her lives are very dark indeed (in one life she is trapped in a marriage with a Nazi party official; in another her life is derailed by a rape, illegal abortion, alcoholism and an abusive husband). But even if Atkinson had let Ursula have at least one happy life the book does not quite work for me, even if it has worked for many other readers.

When I first heard of the book, I thought it sounded like a bad idea – the difficulty of dealing with the pure repetition of going through one life over and over again sounded a bit like a bad video game where each time you “die” you start over again at Level One. That sort of thing is going to get a little boring after a while. But, Atkinson avoids boredom at the level of plot for the most part. She is a skilled writer and she uses omniscient third person narration (or, to use Ursula Le Guin’s term, which I like better: “authorial narration”) to illuminate different facets of Ursula’s various lives (although as Ursula gets older, the third person narrator becomes more limited, tied closer to Ursula’s perspective). So, for example, Ursula’s birth is described many times, but from the alternative perspectives of her mother, of the doctor arriving on the scene, of the midwife delayed by a snowstorm etc., each time with little variations that illuminate and trigger a sense of recognition of something “the same, but different” in the reader.

The lives Atkinson writes also have enough variety and change to remain engaging and believable (although, as mentioned, in none of them is Ursula granted much chance at happiness). The book isn’t some sort of modern wish-fulfillment fantasy that the life we have is the life we choose. In many of Ursula’s lives, events entirely out of her control and influence occur (WWII being the ultimate constraint that cuts across all her lives, at least those lives where she lives long enough to see it) that shape her life as much or more than any particular choices Ursula herself makes. One of the strengths of Life after Life is the way it draws attention to the radical contingency of our lives, the ways in which the lives we live (and the selves we are) are not purely our own (one of the basic myths of our contemporary moment).

Yet, despite Atkinson’s imagination and skillful plotting, the book still ends up being a little bit boring at the level of … well, I’m not sure how to describe it: the level of “narrative consequence”? The level of fictional metaphysics? (Is metaphysics an appropriate category for evaluating a novel?). The basic issue I had is that I kept expecting a narrative payoff: that this life was finally Urusula’s “true” life, that a life mattered and had meaning beyond the internal cause and effect of each separate timeline. I suppose I was hoping for some extension of identity beyond the raw events of the different lives. But, apart from Urusula’s growing awareness of her multiple lives (which remains quite vague), there is no ultimate payoff of meaning. It’s not clear to me that if Urusula is able to assassinate Hitler (for example) that this has any sort of effect outside of that particular timeline. If Hitler dies in one life, but is alive in all the others, and the cycle just keeps repeating, I’m not sure what it actually means for a reader (or for Ursula). At one point near the end of the book Ursula kills herself in order to “restart” so she can try and get things right the next time around. But, if she kills herself just to start over again and make another attempt, it just draws attention to a feeling of triviality that starts to creep over the reader as the book carries on: if one of Ursula’s lives is tossed away without consequence, what exactly is the value of each life she lives?

I might be missing the point. After all, we as readers do see the different lives and so we are able to make judgments that Ursula (and others in the narrative) cannot concerning what is the “best” life among the various lives she leads. This is fiction after all and it’s all made up anyway; Atkinson is just foregrounding this fact in a particularly blunt manner. But, drawing attention to the artificiality of her creation, to the fact that Ursula’s lives are written and could be written otherwise (and I suppose this is partly why the darkness of the book rankles – and it must rankle me a fair amount, since I’ve mentioned it too many times already), she deflates the power of her fictional world. If the world the characters inhabit has no ultimate meaning for them, I’m not sure why it means much for me as a reader. I’m not sure what sort of judgment of what is good or “best” is possible if the cycle just continues turning. This is perhaps something of a religious complaint, a call for some sort of ultimate framework of meaning within the narrative which Atkinson refuses to provide. Perhaps other readers don’t find the idea that this varied repetition is all there is as boring (or, in a different light, as terrifying) as I do. As mentioned, I think Atkinson is an author very concerned with ethics, with “setting things right” as I put it earlier. I suppose my frustration with this book is that if every choice Ursula faces is (eternally?) relativized in repeating cycles, her attempts to “set things right” appear to be temporary, illusory, weightless – for her, and for us.

The Exhaustion of Being Coetzee

Reading his restrained, austere prose I have always thought that it must be exhausting to be J.M. Coetzee, the novelist. The discipline! The editing! After reading his “fictionalized memoirs” Boyhood and Youth, it seems clear that it is exhausting to be J.M. Coetzee, the man, and always has been. Or, at least that’s the impression he gives the reader – there is the line-blurring, “fictionalized” aspect to the books. In what sense is this “Coetzee” really Coetzee? There are elements of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in the memoirs (A Portrait of the Artist as the Underground Man?) and Coetzee the author is brutal with Coetzee the character. The project as a whole is unsettling in that Coetzee offers no mercy to his past self; it is a confession where all hope for absolution is banished from the outset. Perhaps this is to be expected from the author of Disgrace.

But, there are unexpected moments in the books, like this one in Boyhood, describing Bible classes at the Jesuit school he attends:

His resistance to Mr Whelan’s Scripture lessons runs deep. He is sure that Mr Whelan has no idea of what Jesus’ parables really mean. Though he himself is an atheist and has always been one, he feels he understands Jesus better than Mr Whelan does. He does not particularly like Jesus – Jesus flies into rages too easily – but he is prepared to put up with him. At least Jesus did not pretend to be God, and died before he could become a father. That is Jesus’ strength; that is how Jesus keeps his power. …

But there is one part in Luke’s gospel that he does not like to hear read. When they come to it, he grows rigid, blocks his ears. The women arrive at the sepulchre to anoint the body of Jesus. Jesus is not there. Instead, they find two angels. ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead?’ say the angels: ‘He is not here but is risen.’ If he were to unblock his ears and let the words come through to him, he knows, he would have to stand on his seat, and shout and dance in triumph. He would have to make a fool of himself for ever.

The unexpected moment here is not Coetzee’s atheism. His novels (at least the ones I’ve read) are among the most “atheistic” I know. God is entirely (unrelentingly) absent in the worlds of Disgrace or The Life and Times of Michael K and I had assumed he was an atheist. The unexpected moment is the description of his suppressed desire to believe, the confession that if he were to accept the resurrection, “if he were to unblock his ears and let the words come through to him, he knows, he would have to stand on his seat, and shout and dance in triumph. He would have to make a fool of himself forever.” Of course, J.M Coetzee is the one of the last people one could imagine dancing on his seat in triumph; the Coetzee of the memoirs works hard to make sure no one can make a fool of him, ever. But the desire to believe, the recognition of the magnitude the angel’s statement, speaks to the Dostoevsky-ian streak in Coetzee: if this is true, if Christ really rose from the dead, everything is different – we kiss the earth, we dance for joy, we are transformed. But, for Coetzee, it isn’t true: his difficult, brutal novels are testaments to what the world looks like where Christ still lies buried in the tomb (the way the world really is, he would say).

The feeling is echoed later in Youth when he describes seeing Pasolini’s Gospel According to St Matthew in London:

It is an unsettling experience. After five years of Catholic schooling he had thought he was forever beyond the appeal of the Christian message. But he is not. The pale, bony Jesus of the film, shrinking back from the touch of others, striding about barefoot issuing prophecies and fulminations, is real in a way that Jesus of the bleeding heart never was. He winces when nails are hammered through the hands of Jesus; when his tomb is revealed to be empty and the angel announces to the mourning women, ‘Look not here, for he is risen,’ and the Missa Luba bursts out and the common folk of the land, the halt and the maimed, the despised and rejected, come running or hobbling, their faces alight with joy, to share in the good news, his own heart wants to burst; tears of an exultation he does not understand stream down his cheeks, tears that he has surreptitiously to wipe away before he can emerge into the world

The Coetzee of Youth is an anxious, bitter, narcissistic mess (like every young writer, I suppose) – he is “one of the maimed, the despised, the rejected” but he can’t go running to Christ. He can’t go running to anyone (“If he were a warmer person he would no doubt find it all easier: life, love, poetry. But warmth is not in his nature“). He just sinks deeper and deeper into the pit of his own misery.

Like I say, it gets exhausting. Coetzee is exhausting.

There is not much relief in Youth and Boyhood. Cricket. The open vistas of the Karoo. The hope of escape. In Youth the only glimmer on the horizon is Coetzee’s growing realization that failure is necessary and inevitable, in writing and in life:

What more is required than a kind of stupid, insensitive doggedness, as lover, as writer, together with a readiness to fail and fail again? What is wrong with him is that he is not prepared to fail. He wants an A or an alpha or one hundred per cent for his every attempt, and a big Excellent! in the margin. Ludicrous! Childish! He does not have to be told so: he can see it for himself. Nevertheless. Nevertheless he cannot do it. Not today. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps tomorrow he will be in the mood, have the courage.

There is a third book apparently, more polyphonic in structure. While I assume the fictionalized Coetzee gets past his early artistic failures, I don’t have high hopes that he casts aside his burdens and finds rest, despite the warm title (Summertime). But, I need a break from Coetzee. Perhaps tomorrow.


Diana Wynne Jones on writing for children

A book for children, like the myths and folktales that tend to slide into it, is really a blueprint for dealing with life. For that reason, it might have a happy ending, because nobody ever solved a problem while believing it was hopeless. It might put the aims and the solution unrealistically high – in the same way that folktales tend to be about kings and queens – but this is because it is better to aim for the moon and get halfway there than just to aim for the roof and get halfway upstairs.

Diana Wynne Jones  (here), whose work I discovered this year and have really enjoyed. Having just recently moved house, I’m hoping (unrealistically, perhaps) to have some more time in weeks ahead to finish some half-written posts on recent reads (including DWJ).