Learning to work, revisited

Today, I reread Virginia Valian’s long essay “Learning to Work” (1977), and thought about my own attitudes about writing. You can find the complete essay at Pauline Nestor’s website, “Writing is My Drink” http://writingismydrink.com/learning-to-work/  It was originally published in a book called Working It Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk About Their Lives and Work (Pantheon Books 1977).

“Learning to Work” is about the avoidance of creative work and what lies behind it. I believe any artist will resonate with what she has to say; I find this essay to be eminently practical and true about the obstacles that prevent us from doing what we love, especially the work that we feel defines us. Because Valian was trained in a scientific field (psychology), she approached the problem with her scientist’s mind, using observation, experimentation and checking results. In the essay, she stands back from herself, observes her behavior and picks apart the forces behind it. Her approach is wonderfully refreshing for someone like me, who has probably read one too many writing books with tips such as “pour it all out on the page” or “write about what you fear.”

“I could last five minutes of difficulty and anxiety,” she wrote, so she set a timer, wrote, and when the bell went off “threw myself on the bed, breathing hard and feeling my heart race.” From this first scary attempt, she built up to writing a full fifteen minutes.

Valian wrote the essay after her experience in writing her dissertation in the 1960s (she is now a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Hunter College), which she achieved by changing her attitude to work. She struggled with anxiety and a feeling of ennui about tackling her dissertation, and instead found herself napping and reading novels. Her partner, who seemed to have no problem working on his academic projects, made suggestions that only made it worse.

She wrote that she desired “to live an integrated life that included doing intellectual work, having close relationships, being politically active, and developing other interests such as playing the piano. But that integrated life couldn’t happen unless I got rid of my work problem.”

Valian bravely set out to explore what was behind her “work problem.” Work, in her case the immersive mental work of reading, doing research, and writing a dissertation, was a mountain to climb, something she perceived would have to become a miserable forced march. She realized she had to change her mind set completely; she needed to find a way to make the work enjoyable and the doing of it to be its own reward. She no longer wanted the work to require rewards or punishments to get her to do it. Her goal was to reinvent work for herself into something enjoyable, even fun.

Valian’s strategy was to ease herself into working on her dissertation by establishing brief work times, very brief work times that she “could live through.” She started with fifteen minutes.

The anxiety about working is reduced when the time period is fixed.

After spending her first fifteen minutes doing preliminary planning and reading, she realized that the amount of time she could tolerate in actually writing would need to be reduced to five minutes. “I could last five minutes of difficulty and anxiety,” she wrote, so she set a timer, wrote, and when the bell went off “threw myself on the bed, breathing hard and feeling my heart race.” From her first shaky attempt, she built up to writing a full fifteen minutes. She set out “rules” for herself:

  • Each fifteen-minute period has to be spent solely on working. No frittering.
  • Official increases in the amount of working time are to be in fifteen-minute chunks.
  • Work every day.
  • Ignore thoughts about the end product, including what others will think of it.

Her strategy led her to analyze her interior obstacles to enjoying writing: the underlying fear of exposing herself and competitiveness with others in her field. She resented how the work made her swing between feeling worthless to being envious of others.

I’ve been known to say to writing friends, “No one is waiting or expecting something from me. What does it matter if I finish anything?” In other words, what’s the use? Choosing not to even try because the world isn’t waiting is a tempting argument, but Valian argues that a person who chooses to work and stick with it isn’t doing it for the rewards at the end—the people who will read your story or article and the praise you might receive. The reason to do it is because it’s your work, and you simply need to do your work.

She writes about the familiar fear we all have of making a mistake, that paralyzing attitude towards work that can stop us cold. It’s easy to say that the way to “get over yourself” is to buckle down and write or make other kinds of art, but as she describes in her essay, the psychology field was going to be her career, and she was acutely aware that her dissertation had to be her very best work. Perfectionism, fear and envy should be acknowledged, but they can’t be allowed to prevent you from forging ahead. In fifteen-minute segments, Valian learned to work through (or around) each obstacle, to commit fully to her work, and to overcome the familiar feelings of panic, boredom and fear about finishing her dissertation.

Late in her essay, she writes: “Once I began to fit work into the rest of my life, that is, once I began not just working but doing other things as well, I found that I had been denying myself many satisfactions.” She developed other interests—learned to play piano, took up French, started reading more nonfiction for pleasure—and discovered that she had “more room in my life, not less.”

In other words, she finally integrated her life and work, and found pleasure in living fully. And it started in five-minute increments.

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