Writing and Alienation

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Last week, I went to a meeting. It was the founding meeting for a new, Sudbury-based chapter of a national organization for self-employed writers who do paid non-fiction writing, I think with a particular focus on those who do (or want to do) freelance work for magazines and newspapers but also people who do (or want to do) contract writing for governments and businesses. The people were pleasant, the advice seemed sound, and the organization itself is probably pretty useful to anyone who makes their living that way. However, it was only a few minutes into the meeting when I began to feel this intense, visceral discomfort that lasted well past the event’s end. Deep down in my bones, in my gut, to the tips of my toes, I did not want to be there. And I wasn’t sure why.

I have been pondering this feeling ever since. Certainly one possible source of explanation for it might have something to do with the many ways in which writing can at moments be a pretty fraught enterprise for lots of people, me included. Even in its less personal forms, writing is like taking a little piece of your core self, putting it on display, and yelling out, “Judge me! Judge me!” Most of us had experiences as children or in high school in which we were shamed in connection with our writing.

Given that, there might be some value in exploring individualized, psychologizing, life-history explanations for my reaction to the meeting. It did, for instance, stir up faint echoes of the anxiety I felt when I first started to think of myself as a writer but was unable to admit that to anyone – it felt presumptuous to claim the label, and I had little I could point to and say, “See, I’m legit!” But that was fifteen years ago, and I have lots of writing work of lots of different kinds under my belt, and I’ve been pretty comfortable identifying as a writer for a pretty long time. The event also twigged in a small way my sensitivity to the powerful cultural norm in which the only work that is considered “real” work is work that is done for a wage. And I suppose it also stirred up memories of the difficult, earlier moment when I seriously considered exactly the sort of freelancing that this organization is about as the primary focus of my writing life, and ended up rejecting it. (I have, both before that decision and after, earned money in various ways through my writing, including ways that amounted to freelancing of one sort or another, and I would be quite happy to have opportunities to do so again tomorrow, but those are specific instances in the context of a different and broader logic rather than a central, guiding goal in my decision-making around writing.)

All of those things are present, but neither on their own nor summed together do they account for more than a fraction of what I was feeling during the meeting. No, I think the answer lies elsewhere, and it took me several days to pin down exactly where.

I think that I was reacting to a phenomenon that some writers have, following Marx, called “alienation” – where that word is meant not in a general and colloquial sense, but rather in a specific technical sense which links a particular kind of embodied experience to particular forms of social organization.

According to David McNally (in a book I reviewed here), we experience alienation when we are compelled to engage in a significant proportion of the practices that fill our everyday lives under logics that take them beyond our control, squash our creativity, and employ us as do-ers of specific, externally imposed tasks rather than whole people.

What is produced, how it is produced, according to what techniques and under what circumstances is determined by the logic of capitalist accumulation. Rather than an affirmation of our humanity, of our existence as creative beings making our lives together, labour under capitalism becomes drudgery, a detested, mind-numbing loss of life. (115)

He goes on to identify elements of this logic: the control that others have over whatever it is that we produce; our lack of control over the work process; the ways in which the work process estranges and divides us from other people; and the ways in which we “are estranged from [our] human capacity for creative self-development as members of a co-operative community” (ibid). And not only is this a localized feature of labour processes, but the logics of capital shape relations and practices far beyond that, such that many “spheres of life become yet more areas in which we are estranged from others and from ourselves” (117).

John Holloway (in a book I reviewed here) puts it like this:

Labour (alienated labour) is what we reject: it is an activity that we do not control, an activity that produces the master, that produces capital. (Alienated) labour is the enemy: we do not want to labour. But in the background there is another possibility (potential, dream?): to engage in free, conscious activity, conscious life-activity. (89)

My reaction to the meeting, then, was a reaction to a particular way of organizing a writing life. I have, through a combination of luck, privilege, and work, built myself a writing life that is relatively (though far from completely) unalienated. I have developed particular practices of relating self, world, and words, which feel affirming, which flow from and reflect me, which simultaneously enact and grow my “human capacity for creative self-development.” These are not totally practices that I control, that refuse to produce the master, that refuse to produce capital – we live in the world in which we live and there is no escape that is not collective – but that allow me some control and some scope to work within-and-against the production of the master, the production of capital. I can, to a significant degree though with particular costs and consequences, write things that I want to write in ways that I want to write them. All of which may sound very abstract and even quite peculiar, but it was the spectre of going down a path that would mean losing that space and being swept back into writing under much more alienated conditions that created that intense negative feeling inside of me at that meeting. (I think a reaction to alienated writing labour, though in that case through the imposed logic of the classroom rather than the logic of the market, was also a big part of my sense of needing to ‘detox’ after my recently completed year in graduate school.)

Now, some caveats: This is not saying that people who engage in the kind of freelance writing practices that this organization facilitates are somehow “doing it wrong” or are “bad.” Far from it – it is more evidence that their success in navigating such conditions are worthy of respect and worth learning from. There are many strategies for writers to navigate and resist alienation, and while some may be better suited to specific circumstances than others, I’m not sure that any are “better” in an absolute sense. There are always tradeoffs, and we all must navigate the particular circumstances in which we exist. I recognize that the particular strategies that I have developed and trade-offs that I have made are highly dependent on a significant degree of material privilege. And I recognize that my path is not some expression of purity, but simply one approach to non-stop struggle, negotiation, and compromise. My recently released books are a good example of such negotiation and compromise in my writing life: I wrote them as a single book, but split that one into the two that have been published in response to the publisher asserting quite convincingly that market logic required it. It meant giving up some things about the project, but it seemed a more than reasonable trade-off. And part of my current activities involve promoting the books, which is another layer of obedience to market logics – in the tongue-in-cheek, self-directed words of an English author of lefty books in a recent blog post, “See, this is what happens when you become a member of the petty bourgeois intelligentsia - non-stop hawking of your own wares, all relations subordinated to the cash nexus, all sentimental bonds drowned in the icy waters of egoistic calculation. No, but seriously.”

And of course there are other people who are quite successful at creating and defending space to engage in (relatively) unalienated writing in other ways. Some deliberately engage in both alienated and less-alienated writing and keep firm boundaries between them, for instance by writing articles about things they don’t care about for money while also working on a novel. Others might just do for-pay non-fiction freelancing, but have a dynamic relationship to alienation, such that they are clear that some pieces are just for money but others include much more self. I’ve always admired the ability of screenwriter and director Joss Whedon to combine in his career writing that I would identify from the outside as being relatively alienated with writing that is relatively unalienated even while carving out a highly successful career at the heart of entertainment capitalism – Hollywood – through both doing smaller and independent projects as well as having a (relatively) sound instinct for when to bow down to the demands of capital in the form of network execs and when to push and put pieces of self in even the biggest budget productions he has worked on (i.e. The Avengers). (Though I agree that his approach requires not just cunning and effort but also significant privilege in order for it to succeed.) And another approach – one I have used plenty in the past – is to work waged jobs that have nothing to do with writing to reduce the power of market compulsion over my writing choices, and then write what I want in the rest of my time.

The point I want to make here is not that a particular strategy of resisting alienation when it comes to writing work is better or worse, or even that the decision not to resist it at an individual level is necessarily a problem. But I think the experience of alienation as part of writing work is one we all need to think about, however we relate to it. And my reason for saying that goes back to a point I made earlier: most of us have most of our early writing experience in the context of elementary and high school. That may not be writing done directly under the logic of the market, but much of the time – there are always exceptions with great teachers – it is similarly alienated in that the goals of the writing are imposed, as are many of the processes and practices, and the product is primarily used as part of evaluating the one who produced it. I think that such early experiences sediment into us very deeply. They are traumas, damages, hurts that we continue to struggle against as adults, that are continually woken in us during our present-day struggles with alienation in the context of our writing. We all want to find new and better ways to deal with those kinds of material and emotional barriers to doing the writing we want to be doing, and I think viewing both those early experiences and our current struggles through the lens of “alienation,” as one among others, gives us a powerful conceptual tool in figuring out how to move forward.

[Scott Neigh is a parent, activist, and writer based in Sudbury, Ontario. This post originally appeared on his personal blog. He has written two books as part of a larger project examining Canadian history through the stories of activists, one focused on gender and sexuality struggles and the other on resisting the state.]

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