Writers at Work, Part I

Contributors Share their Thoughts on Labor, Writing, and the Current Climate

While creating this issue, we thought about labor as both noun and verb, tangible and intangible. We discussed how labor is often hidden from view, how it can be private or public. How it can be an act of love or something that must be endured. Labor is often categorized—by type, by value—and that categorization can change with time and need as well as by who is doing the categorizing. And finally, we examined how labor contributes, for better or worse, to our identities and sense of self. 

In response to the latest edition of Portland Review, which features works on and about the idea of labor, Nonfiction Editor Lee Ware reached out to several of our contributors and asked them about the issue’s theme, their writing practice, and the impact the current climate is having on them. In this first of two posts, Lee spoke with contributors Brian Evenson, Madeline DeLuca, and Nicole Melanson. In the second segment, we’ll hear from Catherine Cowie, Emily Costantino, and Terence Young.


Lee Ware: Describe your submission. How does it inform or represent your own thoughts about labor?

Brian Evenson:  My piece tried to take on the notion of unacknowledged labor and the idea, often unconscious, that people seem to have that some types of work are more important than others, is more “real.” It’s about whether labor is considered interruptible or not by the extended family connected to the laborer, and I speak of the way in which a friend of mine, who is a writer, is always called upon to do things by his extended family in a way that his brother, who is a lawyer, is not–because the brother’s work is important and should not be interrupted. Since I too, as a writer, am fighting an uphill battle in terms of getting my extended family to understand my own work as “real”, I discuss strategies I use to make it so my “labor” within the family has lesser value: if I appear unreliable to my extended family, they leave me alone and allow me to do my writing.

Madeline DeLuca:  In my submission, I wanted to look at labor in a number of different ways. First and most obviously, we have the girl who owns a convenience store. There’s labor there, in stocking the shelves and tidying up and running the cash register. You want to make your customers happy and want your store to look nice. And then there’s also the labor that lies inside the love she has for her customer. In this kind of love, the labor is hidden. You don’t wake up and put on your work shoes and grab a pickaxe and say “Alright, off to work.” But you are giving everything you have to someone, you’re trying to make them feel good, trying to make them happy–sometimes above your own happiness–and in that labor, you wind up feeling exhausted and empty, as if you actually had worked a 12-hour retail shift. And I also thought of labor in the terms of self-love too. You do have to put work into loving yourself after you go through a laborious love like in my submission. It’s not easy to switch the gears from taking all the love you gave that person and giving it to yourself. Loving yourself is long, hard work, and it’s a silent labor that you have to work towards every day.

Nicole Melanson: I was a writer long before I had children, but I find there’s a similarity in how I approach both art and parenting. There’s always that moment where we need to step back and look at what we’ve created—which, in the case of children, is literally another life—and recognize that creation is its own entity. We can attempt to guide and shape an individual narrative, sure, but ultimately, each story eventually belongs to itself and to the world at large instead of to its creator.

LW: Where does your writing fit in relation to your thoughts about labor?

BE:  I see my writing, despite it often having a strong fantastical element (though in this case it doesn’t), as actively expressing my philosophical relation to the world and as actively critiquing the systems in which we live in.

MD:  Writing really can feel like labor sometimes–if not in the work aspect, in the birthing aspect, going from a little seed to a full-term baby, guiding it and pushing it out into the world. But in terms of the labor of love, I see writing as a strong form of self care. When I write, it’s when I’m the most myself. Writing pushes aside all the superficial thoughts and it holds your face still and asks, “What are you thinking? What are you feeling?” And throughout the writing process–the idea, the free writing, the editing, the revising–you are working, laboring, over something that will ultimately teach you more about yourself. Sometimes I don’t know where I’m going until I get there. And that’s the labor, that’s the self-love and self-discovery that’s so magical about writing.

NM: For me, writing is something that always fits around parenting. This works well when my kids are at school but becomes infinitely trickier when they’re home. I have 5 boys, so there’s a lot of big, loud energy around me all the time now and I’m finding the relentlessness of it a bit of a challenge. There’s a lot going into my brain, but not a lot coming out, and the constant stimulation is both stressful and exhausting. I’m not worried about the long-term impact on my work, though; experience has shown me that I can take a break from writing when life gets too busy, then process everything later as time allows.  

LW: How is the current climate – specifically the stay at home and social distancing measures – affecting how you work and the type of labor you’re involved in?

BE:  I’ve had a hard time writing since the stay-at-home orders, less because of nervousness or anxiety and more because of the extra labor it has required to move my classes to online formats. That process has required a lot more time and energy and has had less satisfying results, which makes it frustrating for everyone. There’s an assumption on the part of the university that we should just do this–and ultimately I agree we do have to do it–but very little acknowledgment of the extra time and effort it takes not only to do it well but to do it at all. So, I haven’t finished (or even, really, worked on) a story in the last six weeks.  That hasn’t happened to me in a very long time.

MD:  Staying at home and being forced to sit with myself has forced me to deal with the labor of self-love–I am all I have right now! It really has urged me to slow down and sit and breathe with myself. When I sit at my computer to work or to write, I can more easily access that mindful side of myself because all I do is sit in one place. I’m not running around and distracting my mind. But, as we all know, loving yourself takes a lot of work. Sitting with yourself is hard. I go through all the emotions, sometimes multiple times a day: scared, anxious, bored, angry, disgusted, shameful. I’ve learned that the best way through these emotions is to just allow them to enter your body and let them naturally leave. Feel everything. It’s okay to feel it. And then work towards peace in the quiet moments.

NM: Left to my own devices, I happily spend a lot of time at home anyway. The difference is I’m usually alone amongst the everyday rhythms of school runs, kids’ sports and activities, doctors and dentist appointments etc. There’s a natural balance that emerges between parenting, socializing, and working independently. Now, there’s no balance, and my rhythms are all out of whack.

That said, I’m incredibly fortunate in my circumstances. We finished a renovation three days before we pulled the kids out of school, so even though we’re all here every day, we’re not totally on top of each other. I’m also grateful to have academically inclined children who have largely managed to keep up with their studies themselves. It’s only the youngest one who needs a lot of support.

LW: How have staying at home and social distancing impacted your writing practice?

BE:  Since my wife is a writer as well and since we have a seven-year-old son who we’re having to help with online class, and since we’re all at home now, it’s been a struggle to find space and time to work. Slowly my wife and I are adapting, and trying to make space for the other to write.

MD:  This has surprisingly helped my writing practice quite a bit. In the mornings, I meditate, read a poem, and try to write at least three pages. I’ve already finished the first draft of a novel I’ve been working on for quite some time, something I never would have been able to do without the stay-at-home orders. I think it really is about giving your mind the peace and the freedom it needs, without being bogged down with outside expectations. I love to write at my core, so I’ve let myself write. New, stronger parts of me have been coming to the surface.

NM:  Last year, I decided I’d put more effort into freelancing. Blogging had helped me hone my non-fiction voice and I was able to shift those skills to writing for online publications. My essays explored feminism, parenting, and disability, amongst other things; however, once coronavirus took over the news, I quickly realized there was little scope to write about anything else, so I’ve taken a break from freelancing for now.

Poetry has also gone out the window for me. I currently have 5 children and a husband home with me 24/7, so there’s too much commotion in my immediate environment for me to connect with that quiet inner voice that speaks in poems.

Where I have had some success is with fiction. I’m 2/3 of the way through 2 drafts: 1 middle grade, and 1 domestic noir. Both are plotted out to the end and I’m finding that makes it easier for me to knock out 1000 words on one or the other whenever I can grab the chance—often very early in the morning before the rest of my household wakes.


LW: How do you think work and labor will change, or if you think it will, as we move forward and reopen local and global economies?

BE:  I think we’re not likely to see a lot of communal spaces open at all, and that the ones that do will be much more structured in the way that they allow people to enter them and in terms of how many people can be in them at once. I think for all practical purposes movie theaters will end for good, particularly now that studios are making decisions to release work online simultaneously with theaters. I can’t imagine how long it’ll be before I’ll want to be in a crowded concert again, or how comfortable I’ll be being in a restaurant. I expect too that my university will be in person next semester, but in a very different way than in the past. In short, I think the trend to move things online and virtual, which was already going on before the virus, will accelerate, that most restaurants will remain committed to curbside and pickup options, that malls and in person retail spaces, already foundering, will go out of business. I don’t think this is solely the fault of the virus, just an acceleration of what was already there.

MD:  I’d like to think that people will come out of this and have a new, unclouded view on labor and work. We all know that no labor comes free. There’s always an emotional or physical toll. I’d like to think that we will come out of this as a more united, empathetic, and grateful society. But a part of me wonders if people really can change. When things get easy again, it may be too tempting to just slip back into convenience, narcissism, and impatience. But I have my hopes. We all need a little bit of hope sometimes.


LW: How are you currently spending your time – working or otherwise?

BE:  I’m still teaching, and trying to find time to write. I feel fortunate to have a job that was designated essential–but I also think that notion of “essential” vs. not is something that will subconsciously impact our thinking about different sorts of labor for many years to come.

MD:  I’ve been meditating, reading, writing, and healing. Now is the time for self-love, self-growth, and self-acceptance. I want to emerge from this with wildflowers growing from the top of my head, flourishing from all the love and sunshine I’ve been giving myself. 

NM:  I’ve actually just learned that my father is in the hospital with COVID-19. I answered the questions above, then I got the news. He lives in the US and I’m in Australia, so now it’s an awful game of watch-and-wait and I don’t imagine I’ll do much else in the meantime.



Brian Evenson is the author of more than a dozen books of fiction, most recently Song for the Unraveling of the World (Coffee House Press, 2019). He has been a recipient of three O. Henry Prizes, an NEA Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches at CalArts.

Madeline DeLuca is an MFA candidate in Fiction Writing and Publishing at Fairfield University. She reads for various literary journals, and works at a bookstore in Pennsylvania. She plans to fill her life with books and words as much as she possibly can, and is so happy to share her own words with you today. You can read her recently published short essay about working in a bookstore during a pandemic at Causeway Lit.

Nicole Melanson grew up near Boston, studied at NYU and Oxford, and after eighteen years in Sydney, now lives in Brisbane with her husband and their five sons. A recipient of Australia Council grants in both poetry and fiction, she also writes about feminism, disability, and parenting, and edits WordMothers, supporting women’s work in the literary arts. You can find more about Nicole and her work at nicolemelanson.com and wordmothers.com.