I first read Nancy’s work in 2006 when one of her essays was published in the inaugural issue of Relief Journal. When I formed an online writing group along with two other friends, we asked Nancy to become our fourth member.
Nancy and I first met in person in 2010 at a nonfiction conference in Iowa, and I immediately liked her as much in person as I had online. She’s a humble woman, careful when she speaks, insightful, deep, and brilliant. And her writing is the same.
In 2013, Nancy and I both were accepted to a summer writing workshop at the Collegeville Institute, Apart and yet A Part. We didn’t tell the Collegeville Institute that we already knew each other, and yet we were paired as roommates, writing all morning, lunching together, reading or writing until late afternoon. With the day’s work behind us and the evening gathering still an hour or so ahead, Nancy and I would sit together and talk about our writing and our lives over slices of Dubliner cheddar and a glass of red wine.
I’m delighted to introduce Nancy to the broader Collegeville Institute community through this interview about her latest book, Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure, released by Kalos Press in April 2015.
“A Place at the Table,” which was published in Relief Journal, selected as Editor’s Choice, and nominated for the Pushcart Prize, was the essay that launched this book. What inspired the essay? Did you know immediately that this project could become a book?
I started to write “A Place at the Table” from a place of inner turmoil. A year earlier my husband had lost his job just months after I started graduate school—this following a string of already turbulent work years for him. We had two sons in college, and I had hoped to cut back on my full-time medical writing work while in this graduate program. Things weren’t working out the way either of us had planned, and it raised all kinds of questions for me about the nature of work. I started writing to make peace with the ongoing job situation, but when the piece was finished, I knew there was more for me to think about regarding work from my point of view as a working person. So this essay became like a crystal that grew into more exploration and writing.
The word “livelihood” means something different for you than the word “work.” Help us to understand the difference.
In common usage, the word livelihood is used to speak of our work, our job, the way we “make our living.” But the etymology of the word suggests a broader definition: the word life is combined with words like course, journey, way, and support. The Oxford English Dictionary defines livelihood as “the course of a person’s life” and a “means of living,” including physical sustenance and spiritual, cultural, and emotional sustenance.
When you consider that full definition, livelihood becomes a word much bigger than only work or a job that provides for your life. It becomes a word that covers all kinds of provision for life, which is why I wrote in the book that, “In the fullest sense of the word, livelihood means the way of one’s life; it means the sustenance to make that way possible; it means both body and soul are fully alive thanks to what has been earned or received by grace.” I think it’s a helpful way of looking at our work within the context of the broader life journey.
You write about the “shadow side” of work. What do you mean by this?
Just yesterday I read this overused line in a magazine for perhaps the millionth time, “find work you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” This kind of cliché implies that if you don’t love everything about your work, you just haven’t found the right work yet. It doesn’t admit that even if you find work you love, work can be hard in all kinds of ways—physically, emotionally, spiritually.
Lots of writing about work may not use this exact phrase but still offers the same sentiment that good work flows, that work you love is effortless. In Finding Livelihood I admit that there is a darker side to work, a side of work—whether it’s due to economic forces, working conditions, difficult bosses or customers, or any of a host of factors—that causes anguish, anger, exhaustion, and so on. In the book I acknowledge the significance of this shadow side, particularly because it can become a rich vein for productive questioning and growth.
Related to this shadow side, you take issue with the author Frederick Buechner. Buechner is famous for having written, “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” You have problems with this idea. Why?
First, it’s not biblical. Nowhere in scripture do I find anything that resembles this statement as it’s commonly used, nor will you find it demonstrated as a principle to follow. Consider Joseph, Moses, Jonah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, to name only a handful of examples: they didn’t choose their paths based on a calculation of where their deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger intersected. Most people in scripture ended up on paths they would never have chosen and often try to avoid.
Second, it’s not true to history or to life. Most people don’t have the option to choose work that not only aligns with their great gladness but also with the world’s greatest needs. I don’t doubt that there are people for whom it is true and for whom it has been a helpful guide in career decision-making. What concerns me is when such a view is held up as a gold standard. Where does that leave most of us? What kind of pressure for perfection does that kind of standard put on people, even twenty-somethings, who are looking for work?
The book isn’t at all a rant against Buechner; this kind of advice comes from many “experts.” I am a fan of much of Buechner’s work. My point here is that God’s leading in our lives is much more mysterious than a short snappy aphorism.
What do you hope the readers of Finding Livelihood will find in its pages?
I hope that its readers feel excited at the personal agency they have to use their work—whether or not it’s currently “satisfying”—as the place from which to launch or expand a spiritual journey. I hope that its readers open more toward seeing meaning in the people, places, and events of daily work by beholding what is right in front of them. I hope readers think more about the transcendent reality in which they each live and work. I hope they increasingly pursue moments of Sabbath-like leisure. I hope they consider how they can call back to God through their current work, and not only about whether or not God is calling to them to do this or that. I hope they find in this book spiritual sustenance for their pursuit of livelihood, which, in the fullest sense of the word, means more than only work. And finally, I hope they find companionship in their work life or work circumstances by joining me on these pages.