Work Stories: Nancy Nordenson's two kinds of work

Welcome to the newest post in a series of guest posts on the subject of our everyday work lives. For the remaining weeks of Ordinary Time, I’ve invited some friends to share a one-day snapshot into their work life that will help us see what they know to be true right now about who they are made to be.

This week’s guest is one of the voices I’ve listened to most deeply on the subject of work. Nancy Nordenson’s book Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure is a good and true reflection on the tension between light and shadow that most of us hold every single work day. In the book she tells her own story of the work she chooses and the work she’s been given which, on most days of her life, are two separate kinds of work. The fact that she shares this sometimes-discomfiting message with literary beauty puts the book at the top of my list of favorites on the subject of faith and work.

Imagine my delight when, unexpectedly, I met Nancy in person at a writing event a couple of years ago. I’d been wandering around the campus in a self-conscious daze, searching for a friendly face who saw me for me and not my credentials. And that’s when I met Nancy and her husband, Dave. We’ve remained online friends ever since, and I treasure her hopeful, thoughtful, authentic voice in the middle of all the digital clamor.

This is the final guest post for this year’s series of Work Stories, and I’m delighted that Nancy gets to be our final word for this year. No matter where you find yourself on the spectrum of doing the work you’ve always wanted to do or just doing the work you’ve found, may you find encouragement and hope in Nancy’s words.

p.s., I’m honored to be the first place Nancy’s publicly shared the title of her newest book! Please visit Nancy’s website to read more about her new project, and do sign up for her email newsletter. It’s a gem!

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I have two kinds of work. Creative writing: this work doesn’t add financially to our bottom line, and in fact, has taken away a fair amount, but I consider it a spiritual vocation. And medical writing: this work pays the bills and takes up the bulk of my time. Given, however, that medical writing is about the human body and what makes us sick and what makes us well, even this is within the spiritual vocation realm to a considerable extent. My guess is that most jobs intersect with this realm if you consider them a certain way. Hopefully, both my kinds of work contribute something of value back into the world.

Creative Writing

My day typically starts with prayer and some devotional reading, often from the Bible, and often taking place somewhere near a window looking out on the backyard, preferably in the direction of a river birch tree that we planted about 7 years ago. I then work on my current creative writing project. I’d like to say the creative writing work happens every day, but honestly, it often gets usurped by my other work that overflows its parameters. But for the purposes of this piece, I’ll assume it’s the best of days. I use this hour or so before I start my paid work by writing or by editing something already in process. I often work with pen and paper, tape and scissors.

Currently, I’m working on my third book, this one about hope. My current working title is Being on The Way: The Practice of Hope (and this is the first time I’ve named that title publicly). I started this project about four years ago, and it’s not yet clear how much longer it will take before I can call it complete. Hope, once you start considering it deeply and over time, is not as simple as it initially seems. A first piece from this work was published at Art House America, and if you’re interested, you can read it here: https://www.arthouseamerica.com/blog/knotted-gossamer.html

 My current writing project as it was this past spring; it’s in a little better shape now.

My current writing project as it was this past spring; it’s in a little better shape now.

My creative writing work started about 23 years ago and could be described as slow moving. I’ve always had another job and a good amount of that time was also spent raising my sons. The two books I’ve written have each taken about 8 years or so to write, find a publisher, and be released. I sometimes get uncomfortable admitting to this slow pace, but on the other hand, it is what it is considering my other work expectations. Plus, on a deeper and very real level, I think it often just takes a long time to think about and live into complex topics, let alone write about them.

Thirteen years ago I went back to school to get an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University, a low-residency program with a unique art and faith emphasis. My primary goal in enrolling in the program was to become a better writer. My secondary goal was to deepen and broaden my understanding of faith and how it informs and is informed by art. In the program I realized just how deeply these goals were intertwined. Better writing necessitates a deeper and broader spiritual sensibility, and vice versa. I mention the program now not to name a credential, but because it continues to have so much to do with who am I am and what I’m about.

I try to re-enter the creative writing work again in the evening. This is mostly in the form of reading rather than writing, but reading always feeds writing. I usually write posts for my blog (Markings) and my newsletter (Dear Reader) on the weekend. Other things always compete with this evening and weekend time, however—including cleaning, laundry, and grocery shopping, and spending time with my friends and family so not everything on my list gets done and things take longer and longer. Plus, honestly, my brain is often very tired at the end of a work day, which is another reason my creative work takes a long time.

Medical Writing

 Websites frequently on my computer screen during my work day.

Websites frequently on my computer screen during my work day.

When it’s time to start work, I usually move away from the backyard windows to the desk in my home office. For about 16 years, my medical writing was all freelance, but a little over 2 years ago, I shifted to working as a full-time employee for one of my long-term clients. I am very grateful for the routine paychecks, the camaraderie of colleagues, and the opportunity to be part of something bigger than what I could conjure alone at my desk. My medical writing is typically for a physician audience under the umbrella of continuing medical education. For each project, I’m the writer on a team that’s led by a faculty comprised of one or more physicians. Most of the completed projects are available online, but sometimes they are presentations at medical meetings. A few of the topics I’ve written a lot about over the years include hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. There are always new topics as well and so much to learn. Lately, my projects have included Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple other kinds of cancer. I spend a lot of time on the websites of the National Library of Medicine, including ClinicalTrials.gov and PubMed.

Final Thoughts From Behind the Scenes

 St. John’s University Guest House in Collegeville, Minnesota

St. John’s University Guest House in Collegeville, Minnesota

I’m very grateful for my work and creative writing projects, but I don’t want to end this post suggesting a glorious life where all are living happily ever after. Too often, when we talk about work in an all-positive frame, those reading or listening may be left feeling like they’re doing something wrong. To be honest, if readers of Tamara’s blog were all sitting around a dinner table together, I could share troubling stories about work life, starting with the first day of my first real job, in a hospital microbiology lab, when my coworkers voted on whether to walk off the job in protest for how the staff were treated. I could tell you of the evening many years after that first day in the lab when my husband came home late from work, holding a cardboard box filled with his office stuff, and told me he’d lost his job, just as we had two sons in college and I had started grad school. If we were together around that dinner table, I would listen to your stories as well. We could talk about the hard questions associated with work that books by “experts,” particularly Christian books about work, or dare I say sermons about work that we occasionally hear from the pulpit on Sundays, seem to want to avoid. Work is not just a place from which to serve others or a place to earn money, but a place of human struggle for the one who works, a place of human transformation.

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I wrote an essay shortly after my husband lost his job called “A Place at the Table,” first published in Relief Journal, and that was the crystal for my second book Finding Livelihood. I wrote that essay as an effort to deal with his job loss, to make peace with it, but I kept writing what became the book to make peace with work and to explore where work fits on a lifelong spiritual journey.

Peace and hope to each of you in your work lives, paid or not. And thank you to Tamara, for inviting me to be part of this series.

Nancy Nordenson is the author of Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure, (Kalos Press, 2015), and Just Think: Nourish Your Mind to Feed Your Soul (Baker Books, 2004). Her writing has appeared in Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Indiana Review, Comment, Under the Sun, Relief, and in other publications and anthologies, including The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God (Cascade), Becoming: What Makes a Woman (University of Nebraska Gender Studies), and Not Alone: A Literary and Spiritual Companion for Those Confronted with Infertility and Miscarriage (Kalos Press). Her work has earned multiple "notable" recognitions in the Best American Essays and Best Spiritual Writing anthologies and Pushcart Prize nominations. By day, Nancy works as a medical writer and has written for a variety of venues, including continuing medical education programs and national and international medical symposia. Nancy graduated from North Park University in Chicago with a BA in biology and chemistry and earned an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. Her website is www.thelivelihoodproject.com.


What about you?

In what ways do you think of your work as a spiritual journey?

A song and a prayer for all of us this week

 
May you have livelihood in the fullest sense of the word.
May your eyes be opened to the larger transcendent reality that enfolds your work.
May you live and work in the flow of God’s love and grace, to you and through you.
May your work be absorbed into the overall spiritual journey that is your life.
May your longing for meaning be satisfied even when your daily work fails to satisfy.
May you be refreshed in the time and space of Sabbath-like leisure.
May we all make peace with the shadows.
— The Benediction from Nancy Nordenson's book Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure

(You can read all of the Work Stories here.)