At some point in my writing life—I don’t remember when, but it was years ago—this became my mantra and my exhortation to myself: Do your own work first.
It may have been influenced by Mary Oliver, who once wrote in a letter something like, “I can’t meet with you, or anyone, in the morning… because that’s when I write” (I’m paraphrasing).
It may have been influenced by Robert Hass, who said, “Take the time to write. You can do your life’s work in a half-hour a day.”
It may have been influenced by the time in my life when I was sick and literally couldn’t write, couldn’t hold a pen in my hand, couldn’t press the keys down on my laptop keyboard, couldn’t even hold a book to read. I remember lying on the couch shortly after giving birth to my daughter, child number three. My mom was staying with us because I was too sick to care for the baby (or the toddlers, for that matter). I remember saying to her, “I hope I can write again someday.” Her reply: “Oh, sweetheart. I just hope you’re well enough to take care of the kids someday.”
I wished that, too. But also, I knew that someone else would always take care of my kids if I couldn’t. And that no one else could write my poems.
In that moment I felt a little monstrous, as writer- and artist-mothers sometimes do. But I also understood something: I understood what my Work was. I understood that if I didn’t or couldn’t do it, I couldn’t be Molly Spencer. That my life would not be my life.
Do your own work first.
Sometimes I’ll post it on social media as a reminder to myself and others.
Do your own work first.
Sometimes I’ll text it to a writing friend who’s feeling overwhelmed by all the obligations of life.
Do your own work first.
Enough so that, occasionally, someone will ask me: What do you mean by that exactly? as someone did over the weekend. And here, somewhat edited now from a tl;dr text thread, is my answer:
First, it means to give up on the idea of balance and try to embrace, instead, what I call “the juggle.” I’m not someone who does well in a chaotic environment, physically or psychically. But my experience is that family life and trying to raise children to adulthood is often chaotic. Also, capitalism and our society’s power structures like to act as if they’re very orderly, but they are not: They send us bewildering and conflicting messages every day. So one important thing for me has simply been to accept that I may never feel balanced in terms of how I spend my time in this life, but I will keep trying to juggle so that what’s essential gets its time.
Then I had to figure out what really is my own work. What is the very most essential work? What work is it that, if left undone, I cannot be Molly Spencer? For me, it’s poetry. This is the Work, then. Everything else is just work.
Then I had to figure out what must be done to meet my obligations to others, many of whom I love deeply. I need to feed my kids, attend to their health and schooling, and help them find their joy(s) in life. I want to nurture certain relationships. There are laws, so I have to do my taxes. There are bills, so I have to work. And so on.
Which brings me to work-work, the kind they pay you to do. This kind of work could fill up an entire life, and capitalism and the power structures would like us to fill up our entire lives with it. I have a lot of conversations with myself about how to still do a good job at work, while also not doing everything I have the impulse/inclination to do at work, because if I did that, I would never do anything except work-work (tiny bit of perfectionism running through my veins).
This means I’ve sometimes gone into meetings less prepared than I’d like to be—that is, prepared but not over-prepared, since I seem to prefer over-preparing. I’ve sometimes even taught less prepared than I like to be (but always prepared, and, as I tell myself when I’d like to have over-prepared: I know how to teach writing; it will be fine). I’ve said no to extra assignments. I’ve said no to students who want me to add them to my schedule. I don’t—and don’t want to, and can’t—always say no to such things, but I sometimes do. I’ve also intentionally sought work that leaves room in my life for my poetry and my kiddos. My job holds no prestige in the field of poetry, and my earnings (and the potential for earnings growth, and the potential for advancement) are limited. I’ve accepted that I will have less career “success,” as defined by our culture, and less money than I otherwise could have, in the long run.
So now I’ve said no to everything that’s not pretty essential. Including, for example, reading the school newsletter, which I haven’t done in years. Occasionally it has caused small problems, but only occasionally. I mention this, not because it’s any more instructive than other non-essential things I’ve said no to, but because this is the level of the cut: Saying no to many small, non-essential things is what it takes. It’s like when I’m working with students, and they ‘re 100 words over the word count, and I tell them: It’s going to be a word or two here and a word or two there until you’ve cut 100. (They hate that, by the way :)).
So, okay. Back to putting my own Work first. It means a couple things to me. First, it means I devote time to it—probably not ever as much as I’d like, but I clear time for my writing life every day. This is true even when I’m not writing much, like right now. Sometimes I am only reading. Sometimes I write down one word. But I make space in my day, in what we call Time, for writing. I am exceedingly stubborn about this. It sometimes causes tension in my relationships. It sometimes makes getting the kids out of the house in the morning a little crazier/more rushed. But it’s just not negotiable for me.
(NB: What I do not mean by Do your own work first is that you must do your own work in the morning before you do anything else. It is a philosophical first, not a chronological first. For me, it happens that I prefer to do my own work first in the predawn hours whenever possible).
Second, it means I keep headspace clear for writing, so that even when I’m not writing, even as I’m teaching or cooking or editing or mothering, there is a province of my mind that is a writer, and is thinking like one. It means listening to poetry podcasts while I fold the sheets. It means reciting poems I have by heart as I walk across campus from my office to the parking structure. It means repeating and repeating a scrap of language that has announced itself to me—I still miss the tree they swerved the road for—and listening for the next scrap whenever it arrives. And writing it down. Always writing it down (you think you’ll remember, but sometimes you don’t).
There is only so much space in one brain, and defending a province of it for writing often means I forget other things capitalism and our society would’ve liked me to keep in my brain, mostly to do with mothering, like: when is show and tell, when are permission slips due, when is the meeting for basketball parents, when is the field trip, etc.. Generally, this has not led to disaster and (the kids and) I can live with the fallout when there is any.
Another thing: I’ve learned the hard way through chronic illness that if my body is not tended to, I can do neither the Work, nor the work. I make sure to take care of my body. I eat what sounds good and stop when I’m full. I rest sometimes when I could be [fill in the blank: cleaning bathrooms, doing laundry, putting together a photo album, cooking a few meals ahead, etc.]. I get regular exercise. I make sure my body is comfortable (e.g., warm socks, clothes I feel good in) and cared for (e.g., occasional long baths with lavender oil to soak the pain away).
And let me say that this is all much easier said than done. Some weeks I do better than others. Some years I do better than others. And it always, always means that there are things I “should” be doing that I’m not doing. It always means my house isn’t quite as tidy as I’d like, and the laundry piles up on the regular. It means I always owe about 57 people an e-mail. Another important mantra in my life, which I write on my calendar page every day: Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. (Capitalism and the power structures would like you to believe you are doing it wrong—especially if you are a woman—so you keep scrambling, working, buying, achieving, striving, etc).
So, I don’t know if any of this will help you. I just know that life and the culture as it currently stands will grind us to the bone if we let them. I try to keep the boundaries of my chaotic little juggle intact. It’s hard. This poem helps. This poem reminds me that my life is a “made place.” Either I can make it, or capitalism and the power structures will make it. I’m not giving those assholes my life. The end.
[Editor’s note: a friend has since pointed out that I could just call “capitalism and the power structures,” “the Patriarchy.” And she’s right.]
Do your own work first.