Steve Benson teaches himself and willing subjects whatever he notices he's learning, day by day. He's written orally, on paper, and otherwise, under a number of discrete and indiscreet conditions.
Working for myself, in collaboration
I’m a licensed psychologist. I work in an office I rent in a small town. As a psychotherapist, I’ve been variously and spontaneously hiding less, getting more real in it, including not knowing, in the moment, what anything means or what it’s good for. My client and I have hopes, but these are subject to change. So it’s close in some ways to how I work as a writer. Both situations let me be sincere and ethical. I get to decide how candid to be and when and how and why to say what I might later regret.
I get to try out roles and sides of myself, interact with diverse real and imaginary interlocutors, and explore my attention to language in its dynamic and uncertain action. I sometimes think of theories and precedent ideas associated with experience or reading, but I don’t have a stable plan or a rationale for making one. There are ways I limit or block myself, which generally have to do with trying not to be tiresome, disrespectful, or hurtful. I get to care, and there are experiences of learning and intimacy I wouldn’t find any other way. The more serious and earnest I find it, the more fun it is.
I couldn’t feel as resilient, I wouldn’t have as much fun, I wouldn’t experience my own integrity or invention anywhere near as much, if I weren’t self-employed. I could make lots more money in a hospital or a city job, with my degree, but the scale and role I have here allows me to recognize passion and happiness sporadically every day. I limit professional working hours to about 40 a week. I don’t let the business grow. In my sixties, I don’t expect to retire; I’ll have two children in college later this decade. My independence allows me to treat people as equals and to improvise my orientation to whatever I decide to say or do.
In my experience, this job is “artisanal,” in the meaning Andrew Joron applied to work, in his Labor Day 2010 talk – unquantifiable – qualitatively evaluated – and it’s ephemeral, like performance work, leaving only “the record” as document of what’s transpired. Like the “proletarian” Andrew describes, I have “nothing to sell but [my] labor,” one of activating relations through speaking and occasional writing. I have control over what happens to the profit I am making and lots of say over my working conditions: this is precious.
My father’s work was all in the advertising industry in Manhattan. He was gone 12-14 hours five weekdays and often holed up in the study working Sundays. He seemed pressured. Excessive smoking and drinking led to death by retirement age, debility and lost income before that. He missed out on relationships with his children. His career set a negative precedent we have variously reacted against.
I take time off work for my kids or for health care appointments, not to write. Time for what does something consequential with writing happens most in chunks, when they’re away with their mom or when an externally imposed deadline gets me to work in the evenings or while they play with friends. Evenings after work I swim laps half an hour away or go to various meetings and events in the community (like the peace and justice group, parent groups, a men’s group). Once I’m home I’m cleaning my apartment, answering emails, following internet leads, and taking care of personal business until I make myself get into bed. I’ve been building a long work a few minutes at the end of each day in bed.
As a dad, I do things with my kids when they’re with me, weekends and one school day afternoon. At the office, my professional work suspends my practice as a writer and as a parent. I am always a father, and I am always a writer, no matter what I’m doing or thinking. “Psychologist” isn’t so inherent; it engages some inherent aptitudes and commitments.
I mention money and class with clients more and more—theirs, mine, and others’, but rarely with clients I see as affluent or financially secure. I don’t think I do mention it in the work of writing, either, except when explaining why I’m reluctant to travel for readings, performances, or conferences unless I can recoup travel expenses through getting paid. I want to find ways I can challenge these avoidances. Recouping the income for time lost from not meeting with clients is usually out of the question. Both kinds of work are break-even, financially, for me. My professional job covers my work and family and personal expenses, and my writing work doesn’t even cover the expenses that go into producing it. I am happy with this situation, though it doesn’t make any sense, and I have an increasingly grim attitude about property and capitalism.
This kind of job doesn’t help me to read more poetry, poetics, and so on. But I may be doing just what I have to do to do my own best work, and to keep myself afloat, as a person in this society, as well as economically within this system. Twenty-five years ago, I wished I could work at nothing but my versions of art, a writer, an artist, but I saw no way I could support myself alone at that. A lot of writing has not got done. Maybe less is better. It’s slow: in this I see choice, as well as flow.
I avoid doing readings or promoting my writing in the small town rural region where I live and am a therapist. I’ve been learning not to be so secretive about it, the past few years, but I’m reluctant to contaminate my client base with reflections on my status or value as an artist. I don’t want to be a model, a hero, or a dramatic scenario for clients, aside from how we might realize this through the dialogue we make together. Our conversation is the work.