Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Learning to call it work

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The other day I called my six year old daughter to dinner with the words “okay, enough play, it’s time to eat”. She put down her marker, gave me a withering look and corrected me in a tone that was eerily familiar, “I’m not playing, mom, I’m working.”

My first instinct, of course, was that patronizing smile all parents are guilty of giving their children. And then I thought of my own “work,” which I put in quotation marks because if you were to divide all the money I’ve ever made through writing by the hours I spend doing it you’d have a sad, sad hourly rate indeed. Before I had a book published I couldn’t bring myself to say I was a writer. What I did, well, it was dabbling (if I was ever cornered into admitting that I wrote). After all, I wasn’t getting paid, so it couldn’t possibly be considered my work.

Before we are published, many of us carry our writing around like a dirty little secret. I felt that admitting I wrote poetry was tantamount to admitting I drew pictures of unicorns and rainbows. A silly way for a grownup to be spending her time.

Before I had any books published, when my manuscript was mired in the slush piles of Canadian publishing, I started to wonder if I had wholly lost my mind. Who was I to think I could possibly write anything that anyone might ever find interesting? Who did I think I was? What did I think I had been doing, all those hours hunched over the computer agonizing over a single word in a ten line poem?

Writers, to my mind, were those confident creatures who went around talking about advances and international rights. Writers were those who easily pulled the sword out the stone and were then rightfully crowned by publishers.

Now, on the other side of that great divide, I can tell you that I am no more and no less a writer that I ever was. I still struggle over the single word in a poem or story. I still wonder if I could ever possibly write anything that anyone might ever find interesting. But now I can finally call it work. When I carve out the time to sit down and write, I no longer preface it with a patronizing smile. Losing yourself in it, ignoring calls for dinner, devoting yourself to something others may find baffling -- I have finally realized that it is the work that makes the writer.

In that spirit, I’d like to share with you one of my favorite poems, by the indomitable Marge Piercy:

For The Young Who Want To

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don't have a baby,
call you a bum.

The reason people want M.F.A.'s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else's mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you're certified a dentist.

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Sarah Tsiang

Sarah Tsiang is the author of A Flock of Shoes (Annick Press, 2010), Sweet Devilry (Oolichan Books, 2011), Dogs Don’t Eat Jam and Other Things Big Kids Know (Annick Press, 2011) and Warriors and Wailers: 100 Ancient Chinese Jobs You Might Have Relished or Reviled (Annick Press, 2012). Her latest picture book, Stone Hatchlings, will be released in fall, 2012.

Go to Sarah Tsiang’s Author Page