Montana Arts Council

Unemployed, Fully Employed

by Chris La Tray

Whenever I consider the oft-identified “Sisyphean task” of making a living as an artist, I think of the alternative: the capitalist-culture ideas of what constitutes “gainful” employment and what it is capable of doing to one’s soul. The late poet and musician Leonard Cohen said, “I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is fully employed.”

Since I left my old gig on the fringe of corporate America I have never been more employed, even if the moderate social safety net I enjoyed there has, as it has for so many of us, disappeared. If that is the result of burning the boats on the shore of creativity, vowing to never return to the world of morning check-ins via email or kowtowing to middle management, then so be it. It is a trade-off I am privileged to make, as I don’t have any chronic health concerns that leave me beholden to a system that really only wants to chew me up and spit me out anyway. The Cree had a word for my Métis ancestors – Otipemisiwak – which means “the people who own themselves,” and I have chosen to live up fully to that description. I was recently asked “Whose faculty are you on?” during a Q&A for a discussion I was giving called “The Writing Life” and my answer was no one’s.

So my full employment comes on my porch where I watch the world unfold in the morning and tuck itself in for the night. It comes on rambles in forests, along riverbanks, and down the occasional alley. It comes at the end of long drives around this magnificent region of Turtle Island that most now call Montana, when I arrive in a school or library or bookstore to share my work or perspective. It is a good kind of employment, one I am able to embrace with joy, despite – maybe even because of – its difficulties, uncertainties, and inconveniences.

Approaching the challenges with a wry humor as helped, as these excerpts from my first book, One-Sentence Journal, attest to. They speak to the “hazardous journey” alluded to in the apocryphal “Men Wanted” ad I have tattooed on my forearm, alleged to have been placed in a London newspaper by Ernest Shackleton just prior to his fateful voyage aboard the doomed Endurance. The entire ad reads as follows: “Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”

These short poems are a record on my journey toward success, and a dedication to never being entirely trapped in the ice.




What will run out first:

the year, or the money?




Leaving the house in the morning

with only $1 and no packed lunch,

I wondered how the day would play out ...

and then the universe provided

a surprise gift card for coffee and cookies,

then a soda, then pizza for lunch,

elk meat nachos in the evening,

and finally late dinner and drinks

bestowed by a generous employer.




One thing about living

paycheck to paycheck

is that it feels like Christmas

comes every other Friday.



Tintype portrait of Chris La Tray by Chris Chapman of Northland Studio, Missoula

Hi, I can help answer your questions!