Mentor of the Month: Nathaniel Hawthorne: Work Sucks but may be Necessary

I took it in good part at the hands of Providence, that I was thrown into a position so little akin to my past habits [the Custom House]; and set myself seriously to gather from it whatever profit was to be had. After my fellowship of toil and impracticable schemes, with the dreamy brethren of Brook Farm; after living for three years within the subtile influence of an intellect like Emerson’s; after those wild, free days on the Assabeth, indulging fantastic speculations beside our fire of fallen boughs, with Ellery Channing; after talking with Thoreau about pine-trees and Indian relics, in his hermitage at Walden; after growing fastidious by sympathy with the classic refinement of Hillard’s culture; after becoming imbued with poetic sentiment at Longfellow’s hearth-stone;—it was time, at length, that I should exercise other faculties of my nature, and nourish myself with food for which I had hitherto had little appetite. Even the old Inspector was desirable, as a change of diet, to a man who had known Alcott.”
-Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom House”, Introductory to The Scarlet Letter

I have just returned to the work-grind yesterday after a week of vacation. It was with a rather sort of bitterness, though I can’t really express why since I didn’t do anything worth noting while on vacation. Sat around and watched some T.V.–and even that was fairly useless: no station ran anything new because of the July 4th holiday.

But a daily job forces us, as writers, to get out of our heads for a while. I lifted books and made phone calls and listened during the manager’s meeting for our magical sales numbers. For a few hours I wasn’t able to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. It was a time where “at length, that I should exercise other faculties of my nature.”

Hawthorne makes a persuasive arguement in “The Custom House.” It’s an argument about letting life happen. And sometimes life is tedious, seemingly useless work. For a writer, however, tedious, seemingly useless work is never so. If a writer is paying attention he can catch details…quite like the details that Hawthorne goes into describing his co-workers.

Of course, the whole point of “The Custom House” is how a writer stumbles on to his inspiration. The only fictional piece of the introductory is the part where Hawthorne ‘finds’ the scarlet letter purportedly worn by Hester Prynne. After finding the letter, he describes how his imagination takes him away….

As of yet, I have not found the little piece of inspiration at the bookstore that will drive me to write something as brilliant as The Scarlet Letter. Not yet anyway. I’m still hopeful. There’s plenty I think I have to say about retail and how it works in America…but right now I think I’m too busy occupying that space to write about it. Who wants to work retail and then go home and write about it?

I think Hawthorne and I are at different points right now though. At the moment, I wish that I were around Emerson and Thoreau and Alcott. Wish I needed a break from those guys…(I’m willing to bet good money that if we held a seance and pulled Hawthorne back from the depths of the grave that he’d say he was being sarcastic when he says “Even the old Inspector was desirable, as a change of diet, to a man who had known Alcott.” (He’s talking about Louisa May Alcott’s daddy.) I’m willing to be money because my writer’s groups are far preferable company to my co-workers–though I am very lucky in my co-workers, I must say that now. It’s not the people I work with who are my problem…it’s just the daily 9-5 itself.

Still, I must list the things I have learned/accomplished because of the work I have done:
1. Makes me appreciate the time with my family and the time with the pen.
2. Introduces me to a whole range of interesting people. (Like the woman who said Obama was the reincarnation of Hitler, and the homeless dude who reads the Bible and chapters on female anatomy equally as loud.)
3. New skills–I can make a latte. I can disassemble bookshelves and reassemble them faster than your average bear.
4. Discovered I am claustrophobic. You try wearing those goofy, hot costumes for storytime and see how you feel.
5. I have actually saved a couple lives (maybe more) as a lifeguard.
6. Taught kids to swim–later they placed in state competitions.
7. There’s more, but this list has served its purpose: there’s been a lot I’ve experienced because of the day-to-day and if I keep working and paying attention and keep writing, one day the three will merge and it won’t really matter. I’ll have gone where I needed to go.

3 Comments on “Mentor of the Month: Nathaniel Hawthorne: Work Sucks but may be Necessary

  1. I think it's obvious what you need to do – quit working at the book store and go back to life guarding, or maybe give waitressing/bartending a whirl – lots of story materials there. Ooh, or maybe you could become a forensic anthropologist, that worked out pretty well for Kathy Reichs.

  2. Franz Kafka needed to work banal 9-5 to make crazy shit up. He didn't write ABOUT the 9-5, not all the time. He took the attitude and retooled it into stories like “The Metamorphosis”. Way I figure, the attitude wrought by the experience is immensely valuable to channel.

    That's what my mentore would tell me, anyhow.


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