Literature as a Job, Job as a Literature?
Week of the Festival: Druskininkai, Lithuania
Week of the Festival: Druskininkai, Lithuania
Work is a purposeful activity that is useful to society, requiring various mental or physical abilities. However, when the physical or mental labour weighs the balance down to one side or the other, this can result in a strange dissonance. You come to understand that though walking on a thin line may be difficult, it is absolutely necessary not to fall off into the margins from where it can be hard to get up again. This rule holds for everyone, not just for people connected to the literary world.
The culture’s consciousness still retains the potent image of the sacred poet. He is the misfit who neither can nor knows nor needs to have a job that is disconnected from his primary activity – literature. A poet must live only for writing. And if he has taken some job that is unconnected to it, then he loses his sacred dimension and is perhaps not even a writer anymore. Some will certainly ask, why? Is it so hard? Or: It’s not for you. But other people, hearing that you holdsome literary job, will pontificate about how you should go find yourself some normal work. These are the grindstones of society. Yet writers hold and have always held the most various of jobs: building-scalers, construction workers, bartenders, waiters, cleaners, launderers, bee-keepers, farmers, stockers, brewers, electricians, welders, drivers, bookstore clerks, librarians, teachers. Essentially, jobs that provide a steady salary. They are not, or are not entirely, connected to the literary world. Some of the above-mentioned jobs are better for retaining one’s more acceptable writerly status.
It’s not hard to answer the question of what poets do for work. It’s much harder to answer the question of why they hold jobs that are not directly connected to the literary world. Why, instead of translating texts, writing articles or plays, do some writers choose, for example, to hang from morning ’til night from ropes, twenty-five metres up in the air? Poets do such jobs so as not to go mad, so as not to turn into two-dimensional beings, so as not to poison themselves with literary fumes. Yes, such fumes are produced when you simmer too long in your own juice. Often enough, it is editors and poets of the literary press who complain about such poisoning – as their desire to write slowly turns into the work of a gear operating the literary machine. So the reasons why they do other works can be varied: the limited number of positions available in the literary sector, the small salaries, the inability to adjust to the unstable freelancer life. The latter is often like a roller coaster. By the same token, each writer has their own personal work history about which an entire book could be written. I, in this matter, can only speak about my own experience.
My own epos of non-poetic work began quite early in life. At the age of fifteen, with my father’s help, I got a job as an assistant construction worker. We laid out pipes, dug ditches and poured concrete walls. I couldn’t tell you how much value there was from a worker such as I. At least I learned how to mix cement. And it was there that I first encountered the vast world that stretched beyond the walls of school. Of course, at the time, I looked down on manual labourers – as primitive people whose world was too simple, obvious, and so automatically uninteresting. Even then, I held the misguided belief that a poet is a creation of a different type who should not have to do such work. The primary function of the poet was to write. But what a lot of bewitching nonsense! Construction workers were constantly swearing, playing cards, and telling dirty jokes. I remember how one worker found a stone in a pile of soil. He shouted out to everyone, “Look what a stone I found!”. He inspected it for a good minute, then, satisfied with his find, put it in his pocket. I had to come to understand that something interesting was going on there. But only now can I say that the profession that brings home the bacon does not need to have any connection to your inner world.
As a student it’s easy to imagine that you’re a poet. I worked when I could, had fun almost all the time, and there was no lack of new impressions. Lots of random jobs – big projects pushed me into traps. Back then, I couldn’t imagine wanting to work in something directly related to literature. Poets don’t work, they write and celebrate life, and if they do take on some job or another, it is only temporary. This outlook was a hindrance. How can I be a poet and just go to work? One day, I got a job as a photographer’s assistant, then for three weeks I was a perfume salesman, then a census worker, and after that a construction assistant. I rejected all of those experiences, or saw them as negative. The classic understanding of the poet was as strong as ever: a poet must write, everything else – he’ll manage somehow. The word, ordinary, automatically raised, by contrast, the poet to the skies. It made you feel important.
After graduation, I worked as a waiter and bartender. I did this for four years, though I never liked it. I complained that there wasn’t enough time for writing, even though my time for writing hadn’t changed from my student days. Whatever I did, I found pretty much the same amount of time for writing. My job in a bar failed to expel my mistaken idea that poets don’t work. It was only later that this was expelled when I worked as an organiser of literary events, participated in them, and mixed with those who were like me. Trips to events, wagging one’s tongue, the typical question to the audience about whether they have any questions… Finally, it came about that I couldn’t write anymore. As soon as I heard that I would have to read, I was overcome with lethargy and wanted to hide under a table. Sometimes I found my way to a literary grant, or a literary job that paid well. It turned out I was much more dependent on them than on the ordinary job with a steady paycheck. I started thinking about money all the time. I became a money addict. Literary events and projects became the daily dosage bringing me closer to a successful end to the month when I would be able to pay my bills. Thus, I had been given the perfect opportunity to compare two different worlds. I came to learn that I get more ideas when not surrounded by people directly connected to the literary sphere.
The final straw was a chronic inability to write. I needed to be on the move, constantly experiencing something new, talking and socialising with people of all kinds, experiencing them. But the turning world of literary projects became just a constant search for money and a complete dependence on them. Even with this understanding, it was hard to throw off the deep-rooted concept of the poet. I needed to put down the lyre and take up the plow.
I then rejected all job offers related to literature. I organised nothing. I went to no events. I didn’t even try to write. My first challenge was in hotel management. I lasted two months. Then I began to work in a bookstore, feeling pretty good, even enjoying it. But literature still gave me the shivers. I received an offer out of the blue to go work in the North of Iceland. I agreed without hesitation. Nothing to lose. There, I worked in a bar for a month and moved on to a job for a cleaning company: a laundry service. Physical work, straightforward and ordinary. We drove to various places, piled upthe laundry, washed it and delivered it. My brain quickly recovered. Each bead of sweat corresponded to a new neuronalconnection. There was no literature (expressed in language) to be found. That’s when I came up with the idea at the heart of this essay. To write, I had to be a bit further away, a bit off to the side, a bit different. Literature cannot create literature. Let’s not forget that without it, life is quite interesting on its own.
Translated by Rimas Uzgiris
Conversation with Juozas Žitkauskas
Conversation with Juozas Žitkauskas