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by Hedgebrook Guest

Not long ago, I attended a lively academic conference for feminist scholars. Although I’d looked forward with pleasure to seeing beloved friends from graduate school, part of me also dreaded their interrogative greeting “So, do you have tenure yet?” Answering no, explaining why, noting that I was employed long-term but in a program and not a department, and explaining yet again that most women’s studies programs could not provide tenure lines—-God, what a humiliating, defensive manifesta to deliver over and over. Moreover, as the only untenured professor of my old gang, I earned far less than everyone else; I was not only non-tenure-track but technically adjunct faculty, though with halftime contracts at two excellent research universities.

On the other hand, without question, I was the one who had published the most. Though I didn’t have tenure, a house, or children, I had just won my tenth book contract. Manuscript revision pages fluttered from my knapsack; I was signing my books at two different scheduled events. Clearly, I’d managed to sustain a passionate marriage to the writing life; or, as I marveled to a former classmate, “I’ve done everything I wanted.” She knew that what I’d wanted was to write a pile of books.

So: is it success? There’s no two-car garage with a Mercedes. But productivity, I’ve got. Ideas for future books, I’ve got. And I fall into bed every night satisfied, and awaken each day to my writing life again.

I began writing and illustrating stories in first grade, filling two cardboard portfolios by age nine, and then at twelve I started my first spiral-bound 8 X 11 journal when a daily-page diary from Woolworth’s just wasn’t big enough. The journal writing became a routine that I kept up almost every day, or every other day, in the cracks and fissures of schoolwork time and growing up; by age 45 I had filled over one hundred and fifty 300-page notebooks. Yet throughout all those years of K-12 education and then college, while compounding school assignments with my own extracurricular writing time, it never once occurred to me to think of journal entries and stories as “work.” I had not thought to see my writing life in terms of productivity or output, terms I was more likely to associate with factories and assembly line quotas. From an economic standpoint, this disassociation was understandable: I wasn’t paid for my efforts. There was no employer: my writing life was an entirely self-directed regime, a private calling very few friends (to say nothing of annoyed lovers) were able to understand. Since it didn’t result in income, how could it count as labor? Since I enjoyed it so deeply, was it even work?

Writing time had always been, for me, the shovelful of brightly glowing coal powering my personal train. Onward! Forward! But it wasn’t until a male classmate inquired, in my first week of graduate school, “How’s your work going?” that I saw I had been working my whole life; income be damned. I produced something tangible—-ink on the page—-almost daily, around the calendar. I was Rosie the Riveter atop a scrap heap of nouns.

My classmate’s one remark enabled me to expand and respect my sense of purpose. I saw that scholars could say seriously to one another “How is your writing going?”, and it really meant “Are you trying? Are you producing something of merit?”, not “Has it sold?” It was sheer relief to find a peer group, a community, able to make that distinction between literary worth and crass dollar value. If the journal is work, I have been working since 1974, when I was twelve and a half, a sort of unheralded bat mitzvah. Journal-keeping led to polishing and publishing, reacting and reflecting, material for books. In all ways but the ordinary, such writing made me rich.


>>Read the full essay here!


BonPeeksBigSurBonnie J. Morris a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist (Eden Built By Eves, Girl Reel, Revenge of the Women’s Studies Professor.) Girl Reel also won the ForeWord prize for gay and lesbian nonfiction and was the finalist for the Judy Grahn Award from Publishing Triangle. Her most recent book, The Schoolgirl’s Atlas, won the 2012 Finishing Line Press New Women’s Voices Award for a first volume of poetry by a woman. She was named Professor of the Year at GWU for three years by vote of the student athletes.


Learn more at http://www.bonniejmorris.com/






Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

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