At the start of last year I was sifting through some old posters in the English department, trying to make the classroom walls less grim, and found a laminated copy of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging.’ Perhaps a poem about potato farming wasn’t quite the thing to liven up the walls, but it was a nice reminder of my love for the work of the poet who had just died a year and a half earlier. I felt strongly it was a poem I needed to share with my classes. It was my tenth year of teaching (a fact I found many opportunities to proclaim with both pride and astonishment) and, as it turned out, my last. For now at least. Teaching is hard work.
I’ve used the word “work” twice there very deliberately, of course. And I’ve been thinking about Digging again. There is such respect in Heaney’s poem for the hard labour of his father and grandfather, who “cut more turf in a day/ Than any other man on Toner’s bog.” It’s not the kind of work the poet will do, but it’s purposeful, necessary and skillful work nonetheless “Nicking and slicing neatly,” – there’s a craft to it.
The comparison between physical labour and intellectual / creative pursuits is pronounced in this poem and it’s easy to feel defensive of the latter as equally worthy, even if the results are not always as palpable.
Recent Netflixing of Sci-fi films brought up a discussion point in our house that the scientists, analysts, intellectuals and academics in movies are often portrayed as either very rigid in their thinking or a little bit unhinged. They have social anxieties and neuroses and we could attribute their obsessive interest in their particular field back to some childhood incident that needs resolving, rather than a sheer love of it. There’s little respect for curiosity and wonder.
Meanwhile, the ‘heroes’ of the films tend to be the working class – soldiers, tradespeople, the deep-core drillers who are the only ones who can save the world from an in-coming asteroid with their highly-trained and specific skills. They are physically, not intellectually, strong and they’ll need to be – combat is key to world-saving. It’s a triumphant uprising of the blue-collar as sparked by 90s Hollywood. These characters have hardships too, but they toil, construct and contribute. Science is both mocked and idealised as the final victory lies with the most ordinary, humble and unassuming character who’s just doing his job the best he can. Albeit with highly sophisticated, carefully researched, meticulously designed technologies.
Of course Sci-fi films are known for their extremes and Hollywood notorious for unrealistic and unfair portrayals of all kinds of members of society. It almost seems pointless to even bring it up, except that it feels like a constant and powerful theme.
Perhaps this is partly why I often find myself trying to justify the importance and effort involved in the work of the writer and end up reading all sorts of reassuring articles about writing, such as these ‘non-rules’ for writing by Elizabeth Percer. The third of her rules seems to fit nicely with what I’ve been thinking (daydreaming, wondering, lying around contemplating): The idea that writing work looks different to other kinds of work. Percer says,
About 80 percent of the writing I do looks nothing like writing. It looks like reading, or daydreaming, or driving, or drawing, or listening to music, or lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling.
Many other authors have discussed their ideas about writing as work (e.g. Ford, Eugenides) and often approach it as a desk job or nine-to-five. But to Heaney’s father it must not have looked like he was very busy at all, with much of what he did being possible from the same seat all day and hardly sweat-raising stuff.
As my students read Heaney’s poetry last year they discussed ideas about the importance of writing especially during difficult times, as Heaney was doing; writing as a craft or calling as worthy as potato digging when potato digging needs to be done; and that constant voice in our heads trying to tell us that what we want and do is just as valid as what anyone else is wanting or doing with their time on this earth. It was a fine moment for an English teacher to ‘retire’ on.
Heaney ends his poem with the decisive lines, “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests. /I’ll dig with it.” It moves me every time.
When so much in the world is Hollywood constructed, media-manipulated, target marketing and just plain inauthentic, to find moments where people are doing what they do because they genuinely love and believe in the value of it – well, it keeps me digging, “down and down / For the good turf.”