On Labor’s Value

In the twilight stillness, I watch my son while he sleeps.  My partner and I share the responsibilities of feeding him throughout the day.  As a natural night owl, I do the last feeding of the night when he rustles, generally between 10:30pm and 1am.  In sleep, the curl of his mouth sometimes lifts into a gentle smile, as if dreaming of sweetness. Once, I saw his forehead furrow with a pensiveness that reminded me of myself, the first time that I saw me in my son.  He looked just like the little girl me, ever the old soul, deeply considering the world. An internal labor.

When he came, he was in a rush to be in the space of breath and clarity of sound.  I imagine he was tired of the womb’s gentle rock and the muffle of bass drum, bellow brass horns, and the sharp yap of the dog.  He must have wanted to be free to experience it all and now! He does so many things, like me, fast. He has been smiling with purpose since he was four weeks old, rolling since he was around eight weeks, which was just about the time when he started grasping for items and engaging in cooing conversations.  The labor that proceeded his dedicated exploration of all things, it, too, was fast. Within three hours of active labor and after 20 minutes of pushing, he was here, crying, even holding his head up as he searched out the breast that would feed him.

My labor is not just my work.  There is mental labor, emotional labor, maternal labor of the body, nurturing labor of another human being, academic labor, and creative labor.  I was texting colleagues about our pre-promotion reviews, thinking of poems, posting on Facebook, and watching Judge Judy while actually in labor.  I am as likely to dedicate myself to tasks that individually require my attention as I am to juggle tasks that require my skills and aptitude in all of these areas of labor at the same time.  How do I value that? How do I assign a monetary value to the labors that I do so that I can offer this creative labor as a ware within the commonplace? How do I also negotiate between the labor maternal and the labor that takes me away from my son so that I can creatively express myself and also be compensated for that expression and thereby provide for my son? In short, how do I get paid and provide for my household for the labor that takes me away from my son?  

The first check I ever received for my printed work was for $8.  I was 22, living in North Carolina. I had just survived a summer in which the hunger’s gnaw was a familiar enemy.  I still remember having passed out in my home after stretching two organic peaches and a jar of organic apple juice over four days.  In my twisted conception of nutrition, though I had little food, at least it was the best food that I could afford for less than $5, the withdrawal of which had almost overdrawn my bank account.  I celebrated my $8 check, I believe, by taking the bus to the nearest grocery store. I bought a lot of ramen and a green onion or two.

Only 5 years later, I got a gig soon after my first book came out in New York.  For 20 minutes of poetry, I would earn $1000. Sure, I had to fly from Germany, where I was living at the time, to get the money, but it was one stop on a book tour that occurred over school breaks.  I was a poet with a day job as a teacher. One job paid the bills, though both fed my soul.

Writing is like that.  One day, I get a check for $25 for a poem, essay, or piece of fiction; the next day, I spend that same amount taking a Lyft to a reading where no one buys a book. The day after that, I have a gig doing a reading and a workshop at a university for $1000 plus airfare, lodging, and per diem.  Then for a month or two or three I don’t have any readings or workshops at all. It used to be that I took the lows with the highs; I have a day job as an academic. My professional career as a writer, editor, and curator might not pay the bills but the experiences and the fostering of additional creativity within an arts community nourished me.  I also have not always pursued compensation for my labor. I am mindful of the structures of white supremacy and misogyny that I perpetuate through deciding after internal deliberation that my labor is not worthy of compensation or that another’s labor is worth more than mine. I have come to the realization that I cannot be complicit in my own devaluing or that of others, particularly other women, writers of color, and writers from other marginalized groups.  To demand compensation due is to also lodge a hard seed in the minds of those who organize that may grow roots; they should question themselves, not whether the work is worthy of compensation; rather how they develop a fair and equitable metric for compensation. I can choose to perpetuate or resist systems of oppression. I choose to acknowledge my role in enacting resistance.

Each summer I teach a class with The Speakeasy Project called #LiveToWrite in which writers are tasked to learn those practical skills that are often missing from MFA programs or writing workshops.  How do you write your bio? What is an artist statement? How do you prepare a grant application or apply to a residency? Who will support one’s practice of writing and how do you make the most use of your time?  How do you set up a book tour that will offer you a profit (even if small) and opportunities to travel and to connect with communities (across multiple spectrums, not just literary)? And what is your labor worth? These are some of the questions we consider.  Most of the co-learners in my class have never had someone be transparent about their own journey for artistic expression and the mechanisms around how to make that possible. Folks just say: write or dance or sing! But you need to know the landscape, make connections, get paid, live, too.  It’s taken me decades in my writing and business practice to have some semblance of understanding, and now I share what I have learned and what I continue to learn in a class I offer each summer, priced purposely under market rate so that writers and artists can actually afford to take the class.  In the end, my work is honored with a reasonable honorarium as are the guest speakers who join the class for 4-5 out of the 8 weeks, and I am able to build with those within the extended arts community in a way that is fulfilling, authentic, joyful, trusting and mutually beneficial. Win-win.

I watch my son sleep and feel the gravity of my labor and its value.  Though I am paid nothing to participate in a reading, what might the value be for a son to see his mother sharing her writing with others, drawing a community member into the lived (or imagined) experience?  Though I am paid nothing to offer a writing workshop, what might the value be for a son to see his mother dedicating her efforts to the growth of other writers facing the darkness bravely, even daring to find their joy?  Though I am paid nothing to write an essay on some aspect of the intricacies of a writer’s life, what might the value be for a son to see his mother in tune with those intricacies and ever mindful of the balances that she must manage?  When and for what should I be paid? And when I am not offered compensation, to what will I say no in favor of my family, my art, my life? How do I also learn to value my work and pitch effectively? The Speakeasy class was a result of me taking multiple questions into consideration, valuing my work for my own benefit and the benefit of my community, and making a successful pitch.  

I ask myself questions continuously.  What I have determined, as I cannot say what riches my son may gain as witness to my writing journey, is that I must assign a value to my creative labor.  I cannot continue to accept to be paid nothing all the time; I must have a rubric for acceptance of opportunities that feed my community, my connection, my writing for which the interaction is priceless.  I must also, in those places that have or can find resources, be paid for creative labor I do and the labor from which it takes me.

I have multiple advanced degrees, vast experience in curriculum design and implementation, editorial expertise in the online environment, a talent for consultation with writers on their crafts and providing detailed and incisive feedback, and depth in knowledge and skills in literary arts.  I also am invested in access to the arts by communities of color and other communities of disenfranchised and marginalized peoples, so with each request for a commissioned selection of writing, participation in a reading series, or teaching workshop, I am also mindful about the population that will be served and institutions that are invested.  That said, I should also be paid. I find myself rationalizing the valuing of my labor. Haven’t I earned this?  Let me tell you how I have earned this, I intone.    

The baby is crying for milk and the routine it takes to get it:  diaper change, warm the bottle, nuzzle while he eats, burb, play, maybe sleep…and I am on my way to a poetry reading, thinking about my works value, how to assign a number, how to sell what brings me delight in word and takes me from the delight of my life.  


A photo of the author, Raina J. León, an African-American woman with short dark hair, glasses, beaded earrings, and an ensemble of necklaces over a blue blouse. She is looking upward and smiling.RAINA J. LEÓN, member of the Carolina African American Writers Collective, has been published in numerous journals as a writer of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.  She is the author of three collections of poetry, Canticle of Idols, Boogeyman Dawn, and sombra: (dis)locate (2016) and the chapbook, profeta without refuge (2016) She has received fellowships and residencies with Macondo, Cave Canem, CantoMundo, Montana Artists Refuge, the Macdowell Colony, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center, the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Annamaghkerrig, Ireland and Ragdale.  She also is a founding editor of The Acentos Review, an online quarterly, international journal devoted to the promotion and publication of Latinx arts.  The Acentos Review celebrates 10 years and a publication history of nearly 600 Latinx artists and writers in that history.  She is an associate professor of education at Saint Mary’s College of California.  She is currently a poet-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.  She teaches online #LiveToWrite and #AgentToYourTruth classes with The Speakeasy Project.