To Work, to Write, To Live Fully

DONALD HALL has never worked a day in his life, or so he says. But then what is work? That's the question he sets out to answer in his beautifully written new book, ``Life Work.''

In the course of 124 pages, Hall - who has distinguished himself as a poet, essayist, fiction writer, and children's book author - writes about his work, his work habits, and his sensibilities concerning work, which derive largely from his parents and grandparents.

If I could talk to Donald Hall about this new two-part essay, I would ask him about all the things he doesn't mention. I would want to know how spirituality affects his creative process, and how his understanding of God is shaped by his experience with shaping words. I would ask if the ``absorbedness'' he mentions throughout the book is really the experience of being one with the Father.

To me, those questions and their answers are more interesting - and ultimately more important - than the description of one's work routine or one's family history, however charming they may be.

In many ways, my creative process is much like Hall's. We both rise early (although he much earlier), and both look forward to writing time as if it were a reward. But while we two might agree with Rodin that ``to work is to live without dying,'' I would go further. To write is to understand something of how the Creator works - to be in touch with Him on some level, whether you know Him or not.

What distinguishes Hall's process from mine, however, is that he has made it the first priority in his life. As I dress for work at 6 a.m., he is sitting down to start on poems or prose.

``In the best part of the best day,'' he writes, ``absorbedness occupies me from footsole to skulltop. Hours or minutes or days - who cares? - lapse without signifying. When I have done as much as I can on the moment's poem, I move to another.'' By 10 or 11 a.m., he may have worked on 10 poems, a short story, and a book.

After lunch he walks the dog, runs errands, dictates letters, reads, and writes some more. At night, he writes letters to friends while watching baseball (or basketball), and then falls asleep reading in bed.

Hall makes it clear early on that work is not the same as labor. Work is a task you devote your entire life to; you bring passion and conviction to this task, although you deliberately choose something that you can never do. For Hall, that means writing ``poems better than Dante, Homer, and Virgil, not to mention folks closer to home like Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, and Kinnell.''

As I think about that idea now, I wonder why perfect writing is important to Hall, and how his answer would differ from that of another writer, or even from my own. Many people want to be famous, especially when they're young and struggling, but for someone with a reputation like Hall's that can't play much of a role. I wish that Hall had talked about his motives and how they have changed over the years.

I suspect, although I cannot prove, that Hall's desire to write perfect pieces has something to do with his interest in Christianity. On the third page of ``Life Work'' is a remembrance of Jack Jensen, the minister at the nearby South Danby, N.H., Christian Church that Hall and his wife, poet Jane Kenyon, attend. And near the book's end, Hall himself raises the question: ``But why, when I write about my work and my day, do I not speak of the spirit?'' His answer, for me, was incomplete.

One of the writer's most important jobs is to identify and address the central issues or questions that drive his work. This may not happen as you write a poem or story or essay, but your vision as a writer comes into sharper focus when you do step back and ask Why? No two writers have the same process, because no two people experience creation the same way.

What Hall does in ``Life Work'' is engaging and captivating, but a discussion of one's ancestors and their work - of the meaning of work in the larger society and even in different countries - is not the same as answering the question ``What is my life's work worth?''

The second half of ``Life Work'' begins with a diagnosis that Hall has cancer, and much of the remaining pages are devoted to a discussion of Hall's grandparents and their daily chores. Suddenly their sacrifices (and his parents'), which have enabled Hall to live as he does now, seem all the more meaningful, and the chance to write all the more valuable.

Hall describes with affection his wife and his family, yet he makes it clear that work still comes first. ``Although I want to live among my children, my grandchildren, my mother and Jane, otherwise I want to say: KEEP OUT.''

The poet in me knows exactly what he means, and the part of me that loves stories and ideas enjoyed his fluid narrative. Yet after two readings of the book, I still find myself wishing that Hall had pushed harder and asked tougher questions.

The most valuable thing about narrative writing is the opportunity to reflect on what you've lived, and an essay that doesn't do that has missed its higher calling. Thirty years from now, I will want to have a better idea of why I do what I do. And no doubt Hall's fans, both present and future, will want to know how he helped ``give birth'' to his writings.

Even five more pages worth of information - scattered throughout the book - would have been enough.

As I think of Hall on his farm in New Hampshire (the farm that belonged to his beloved grandparents), I'm struck that many of the poets he seeks to emulate wrote about spiritual things. Yet three pages from the end of ``Life Work,'' Hall admits that his reasons for not mentioning the ``spirit'' are discreditable. ``I am afraid of ridicule;'' he writes, ``most of my friends are embarrassed by my Christianity, my Deaconhood at the South Danby Church, and explain it away.''

I can't help but wonder if the mark of great artists is that they do not care what the world will think of them. They want to attain greatness, yes, but being faithful to their vision is essential. I'm still not sure what Hall's vision is, at least not as it relates to ``Life Work.'' So many of his wonderful observations - and there are many - seem to be borrowed rather than lived.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.