Diary Entry

When Work is the Prize

Procrastination, Take Two: Yes, it’s that time of year in academia. The spring semester is almost over, except, of course for the grading. The papers straggle in or languish in incompletion. I always start to complain about grading―how time consuming, how disappointing, and how irritating (the students mostly don’t bother to pick up the papers constellated with our brilliant comments). I start complaining but in fact final papers have an innately positive function for me: they forestall the confrontation of the summer break. What, if anything, will I write? As long as I don’t know, I can enjoy a kind of anxious liminality: I’m between things, on the threshold of something, I just don’t know what. I drag out reading the papers as long as possible in order to prolong that deferral.

But if I were more truthful, I’d have to admit that grading papers has more value than providing a legitimate postponement of embarking on the next project. It proves to me that I have work to do, that quite simply I still work.

The need to work―beyond the need to earn my living, of course―is turning out in late life to be my supreme value. Work is what I most like to do. Without love and friendship I’d be miserable; but without work I’d be lost. Many of my friends have retired, or look forward to retiring soon. I don’t. I more than don’t. I dread the moment that I will have to close my office door, throw away my hundreds of file folders, donate all my books to the library; the moment when because of illness, severe memory loss, or lack of interest on the part of students, I will be forced to acknowledge that I should stop.  And then I won’t linger.

I’m not a workaholic, I’m quite a laggard, a slugabed, in fact. But there’s joy in knowing that I have something to do that other people―in this case, students―also (for now) need me to do. I like the burden.

image from Wikipedia

I was touched by a recent interview with Tyne Daly (I used to love Tyne Daly when she co-starred in Cagney and Lacey―so eighties but so great) in which she discussed the acting business, Oscars, Emmys, nominations, prizes, who gets them, and the usual agenda of show business. At the very end, in response to a question about her place in the galaxy of awards, Daly says, “the real prize is to be working.”

I’ve come to think that now that I’ve stopped talking about my last book, keeping up this blog is at heart a form of labor, and while I have grave doubts about the desirability of all the sharing and oversharing (including my own) in public―or semi-public spaces–it keeps me believing that I’m still hard at work.

Nancy K. Miller. Diary

Welcome. Some musings on my current preoccupations with the worlds of illness and the worlds of books, the vicissitudes of living with cancer and the need now, in my eighties, to imagine what new writing might be. 

View Diary posts related to the My Multifocal Life project.