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In early 2019, before COVID-19 consumed the world, I wrote the beginning of a horror story while on a writing retreat in the woods of Pennsylvania.
Let me be clear. I am not a horror writer. I have only ever written nonfiction, mostly in the form of articles, personal essays, and blog posts. I’ve always felt incapable of the creative work required to write fiction, let alone genre fiction that veers outside of reality.
But I had spent nearly 40 years as a lover of horror, both in film and in literature. No other genre brings me as much joy and excitement. So when I received a fiction prompt while on the retreat, I went for it.
I spent the next few months finishing my piece, which ended up as an unwieldy monster of a story at about 8,000 words. I then spent the next four years bringing it to multiple critique groups, revising it, submitting it to literary magazines, getting rejected, revising it again, and on and on. At a certain point, I lost hope for it. Its inability to find a home only confirmed that—for me, at least—fiction was a worthless pursuit. So, on the day I received an acceptance letter from a magazine that had held onto my submission for a year and a half (!), I gasped so loudly, my family thought something was wrong.
I had published many pieces over the previous four years, but this particular acceptance brought me a different kind of joy.
The Drive to Be Doing Important Work
I have always felt this need to be doing work that is meaningful. As an essayist, I’m driven to shatter the silence around taboo topics, making others feel less alone in their experiences. As a journalist, I try to advocate for the things I believe in.
When COVID-19 hit, nothing I wrote felt important anymore. Who needed the book lists I wrote for Book Riot? Who needed the sexy how-to posts I wrote for my sex toy clients? And sure, pushing for comprehensive and inclusive sexuality education was still important…but was it as important as the pandemic?
Writers everywhere were forced to pivot in order to sustain their livelihoods. And so, I wrote about unpaid family caregiving and compassion fatigue through the lens of the pandemic. I wrote about perinatal depression through the lens of the pandemic. I wrote about being a freelance writer who works from home, and how that was impacted by my child’s remote learning.
I also did creative work, writing personal essays about motherhood and fear, and about motherhood and identity, and I still wrote my book lists and my sexy how-tos. But these felt more frivolous.
Why We’re Obsessed with Productivity
I feel as if the need to be doing work that is important and meaningful (whatever that might mean to us) is loosely tied to the need to always be working.
This is, of course, tied to capitalism, a system that relies upon our continued unhappiness and dissatisfaction in order to function.
When we are taught that we need to spend money in order to achieve happiness or self-actualization, we…keep spending money. When we are taught that the ability to consume confers status, and that the things we buy are a reflection of our identities, we…keep spending money.
And, obviously, we need to make money in order to spend it.
Which means that when we are not working our asses off to make more money, other people judge us, deeming us lazy. When we allow ourselves to rest, that time is not actually restful, because we are so distracted by our own guilt and shame. (Please listen to Renee, Sally, and Rah talk about this in relation to Tricia Hersey’s Rest Is Resistance.) Doing things for our own pleasure and joy feels like a waste of time, hence the phrase “guilty pleasure,” and a life in which I end up monetizing every hobby. Every day, every hour, every minute, our output is a reflection of our self-worth.
If we are not producing, we are worthless.
But Art Can Save Us
I recently read Beth Pickens’ Your Art Will Save Your Life, and a passage near the beginning floored me.
“You will make work that has enormous impact on someone,” she writes. “You may never meet or hear from them, but someone will encounter a work you make and it will do something transformative for them. They will be grateful you exist, thankful you made the work and let it be out in the world. In order to get there, to let your work reach the people who need and want to experience it, you have to be of service to it.”
It felt so weird when I started to play the ukulele about five years ago, just because. I had no intention of joining a band. Performing in front of others. Becoming a professional folk singer (though an alternate timeline in which I am a folk singer is super rad to imagine). I just had childhood memories of futzing with my mom’s old guitar. The desire to provide myself with musical accompaniment when I sang. Giving myself the space to learn something that felt so (again, that word) frivolous gave me a little stab of discomfort. Still, I experienced a joy in learning a new skill and I posted goofy videos of myself online, fucking up, my child twirling around in the background, and they made people laugh and it made me laugh and, my god, it felt good to just strum and sing.
But it feels like I’m getting away with something every time I pick up my ukulele or pick up my embroidery needle, because that’s not work. I should be working. It feels weird every time I write a personal essay that might only ever find a home in a literary magazine, because that’s not real work. It’s creative work. And I have deadlines.
Still, when I look around my home office, there are so many pieces of art that make me smile. There is the glitter art I did with my child one day, and I love to see it sparkle out of the corner of my eye. There is the stack of literary magazines I’ve had work in, and they make me feel proud. There is the 3D flower I embroidered, poking up out of a small bud vase to the right of my laptop, which reminds me that I can do new things. There is the wreath I embroidered, hanging from my office door, which looks like it was made by someone who knows what they’re doing. God, I love that!
And then there is the art other people have created: My child’s first attempt at drawing a ukulele (it’s amazing, and it hangs front and center above my desk). The watercolor vulva I purchased from a seller on Etsy, which is gorgeous and acts as a nod to the work I do. A drawing I commissioned of me and my cat, who had recently passed away, which makes me emotional (in a good way) every time I see it.
I wrote earlier in this post that the drive to do meaningful work can be tied to the more problematic issue of toxic productivity and capitalism.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing meaningful work.
It’s just that we can’t say whether or not the things we create are meaningful.
Because they might be meaningful for someone. They might even just be meaningful to us.
And that should be enough.