I realise it may sound like I live in an ivory tower/boat, doing only fancy things, and that as a consequence that post about being totally demoralised may have sounded a tad self indulgent. I do all sorts of things, many of them mundane, banal, unexciting. This isn’t just a justification exercise though, I’ve sat down and thought hard about the nature of work, and figured out some stuff I think has far wider relevance, so let’s test that and see…
I write under other names too, and in a wide range of genres and forms. I’m not precious about that, I’ve written pub quizzes, custom erotica and reviews of household products along the way. I have worked tills and stacked shelves, I’ve washed glassware and spent long days doing stalls. It’s not all poncing about in celebrant gear and dabbling in philosophy! As a volunteer I’ve painted fences, picked litter, done long data entry sessions… I also edit for cash. And sometimes, for love.
The money aspect is simple. We all need money, and to be paid for your work is generally necessary, and also contributes to self esteem. I had no problem writing pub quizzes. I’d do it now if it came up. When the pay per hour is so low that you can’t live on it, that’s both deeply impractical, and in our cash driven society, does seem like a value judgement. I’d like to support anyone whose work was valuable enough to be paid, but who wasn’t being paid enough to live on, and there’s way too much of that out there.
I can bring a sense of meaning and soul and integrity to any job I do, based on experience to date. That’s about my attitude to work, that I know how to bring those things to the most mundane tasks. I think back to the paper round, and other low-brainers. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it, and I know if I want to feel something is innately valuable, I have to invest the right things. You can do it on a checkout, you can do it cleaning toilets. There aren’t many innately useless, meaningless jobs out there, and if you find one, there are always issues around how the money is deployed. Supporting a family is meaningful. Financing your planned studies, or your bardic work, or travel; there are many paths to meaning, and that’s down to the individual.
So that isn’t the problem either.
I focused my thinking on the volunteer work, because it takes the money out of the equation, and because when you’re volunteering, the innate worth is a given. Some of those jobs made me happier than others. I was happiest picking litter and painting fences. I was least happy in the job that came with a title and apparent status. Why? It all boils down to how I’m being treated. I spent a month working evenings to get the fences painted at my son’s school. It was a huge job, and although I had some help, it was exhausting. But, teachers, and the head, would stop and talk to me, and they kept telling me how much they appreciated what I was doing, how it cheered them up in the mornings seeing the painted fence. I felt wanted, needed, appreciated, and that enabled me to do a long, hard job for no pay, and to take pride in doing it. The two volunteer jobs that gave me a title came with a side order of never feeling trusted, always feeling inferior, no praise, nothing to sustain or enable. It burned me out, and I saw the same organisations burn out and demoralise a number of other good volunteers too. It’s not enough that the work be rewarding. A little respect, praise, recognition and encouragement make a world of difference.
I took this back to my current working situation. There are places where I feel like a loved and valued member of the team, and places I don’t. There are places where communications have been poor and I’ve been demoralised by this, but, those are fixing so hopefully I will feel better about what I do there. Working for someone who values me is a joy. There are people for whom I would happily wash dishes and fetch coffees if that was where they needed me to fit. I don’t need to feel super-important, I need to feel that my bit, whatever it is, matters, has a use to someone, and is recognised. That comes through, or doesn’t, in the smallest nuances of interaction. Recognising what’s going on here, I shall vote with my feet, where I need to.
It’s all about getting to be a person, and being treated like a person. I’ve worked in a small production space that was fun and happy, even though I was just washing and packaging. The culture of a workplace may be the most important thing. Places where they time and restrict loo breaks, constantly monitor, harass and demand, these are soul sapping. Such employers ask you to be a machine, not a person. There are some people who, seeing writing purely as a ‘product’ want authors to be well behaved little machines that make product. Any employer, in any business who in any way wants their worker to act like a machine, is an abomination. Human respect, human dignity, human expression are, I think, what makes the differences between workplaces that are good spaces to be in, and workplaces that grind you down and make you feel like shit. With the right employer and the right people, the most mundane job can be a joy. And with the wrong person, the most lovely and heartfelt project can be turned into a miserable act of drudgery. Been there. Not doing that again.