It’s fair to say that the past few weeks haven’t been the easiest. The sunny side of life completely bypassed me for a time; as Radiohead would warble ‘...for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself‘. This particular post has been germinating for some time, if I’m honest. The past 12 months have seen significant changes in my life – a mix of positive and spectacularly awful – and I think it’s time to be honest with myself about how I feel now that a year has passed since my complete meltdown last Easter weekend. That weekend culminated in my resignation from work. I have no regrets about leaving. That phase of my life is done with, and it wasn’t conducive to my needs at the time, in fact it was positively hindering me from getting over my father’s death and dealing with other Big Bad’s, as Buffy would say.
Here’s the rub. When you work for over 20 years, put yourself through a higher national qualification and three degrees in the process, when every minute of your life is determined by other people’s deadlines, to suddenly be confronted with relatively unlimited free time can be quite daunting. You can make grandiose plans, aim to write a novel in six months, tell everyone that (and regret when the six months are up), spend your days almost entirely as you like, with a little housework thrown in for good measure. At first I was quite structured. Formulated plans, and even enacted some of them. Caught up with family and friends, got out and exercised.
When people asked me what I did / do with my life I am quite suitably vague. ‘On sabbatical’ is a favourite. To a degree that’s true. Wikipedia, that great knowledge guru, defines a sabbatical as ‘...In recent times, “sabbatical” has come to mean any extended absence in the career of an individual in order to achieve something. In the modern sense, one takes sabbatical typically to fulfil some goal, e.g., writing a book or travelling extensively for research.’
This is exactly why I took time out. Except – I’m not just absent from my career, I resigned from it. I can’t define myself by it anymore, and can’t introduce myself within it’s framework. I was a Grant Programme Executive with a charitable foundation, now I’m just unemployed.
And that hurts. It’s taken me months to admit it, but I feel like I lack status in the circles I frequent. I may hold those 3 degrees, but how does that relate to my everyday life? I may be attempting to write a book from scratch but I don’t feel like I can out myself as a writer. Yes, I’ve won competitions and had short stories published, but at a very modest level and my income this year from writing amounts to £25 of book vouchers. I am aware that this perception is coming directly from myself; it is not indicative of how my family and friends treat me at all, but there’s this nagging voice of doubt and self deprecation that has been getting the better of me lately.
While I’m being honest, let’s look at my literary output this year. Well, I started with a bit of a head rush. Wrote a decent short story that I am proud of, took stock of where I was at with the novel, identified additional reading, wrote test chapters to find the voice – then nada. Nothing. The past 5 weeks have just been a blank space inside my head. My emotions have been ricocheting off the walls of skin that encloses me. There have been dark places in my mind which I’ve found it very hard to clamber out of.
So I find myself approaching my All Fool’s birthday with trepidation and a huge sense of underachievement. Any confidence I ever had in my own abilities appears to have been vacuumed into the ether. I’ve drank too much and ate too much sugar, and woken up loathing myself even more for it. This in turn distresses Husband Underfoot who is my greatest cheerleader and has been an absolute sweetheart.
I’ve realised this week that I have a choice: I can sink with the emotional debris and give into my own inertia and uncertainty, or I can pull myself up my my 40 deniers and accept that every now and then there will be crumples at the ankles but hard work and a more structured day will help me straighten them out. I choose the latter.
I was helped by an essay by a brilliant young novelist, Hannah Kent, in the back of her bleakly superb Icelandic set book, Burial Rites, published here at the Guardian. I urge any aspiring writer to read it – there is so much I identify with. I’ve undergone a similar process, researched to ‘nth degree and then I’m suddenly facing the realisation that I need to write a 90,000 word novel. Word by word. Page by page. Like she did. Preferably with a first draft by September. An excerpt:
As with any high, however, there comes, inevitably, the crash. Finally in possession of the facts I had yearned after for two years, I no longer had any excuse not to write my book. Even as I write this article, my hands grow sweaty in remembrance of the trepidation and terror I felt. People speak of the fear of the blank canvas as though it is a temporary hesitation, a trembling moment of self-doubt. For me it was more like being abducted from my bed by a clown, thrust into a circus arena with a wicker chair, and told to tame a pissed-off lion in front of an expectant crowd. Sure, I had written short stories before. But that, to me, was no consolation. Just because I was a cat person did not mean I knew how to conquer a beast.
Thank you Hannah, for illuminating exactly how I am feeling. I’ve been castigating myself with labels – unemployed, unemployable, time waster, lazy, flawed, procrastinator – when really I am just at the start of something I have a vague idea of how to do, and no idea of how to own it. I need to change my labels, my identity. I need to be brave enough to call myself a writer – and to sit down each day like Hannah Kent and just do it through the self doubt and uncertainty, because when I do I invariably surprise myself. There’s usually a nugget of joy in the fool’s gold. I don’t need to worry about approval from anyone else – I am after all my own editor and reader. I can own more positive labels – caring, thoughtful, generally kind of nice. Creative, curious, inquisitive. These are the labels I want to own, if indeed I must be labelled.
My future is fluid. It is entirely what I make it. And it’s ok if it doesn’t go so well, if I occasionally trip up so long as I don’t hurt anyone else along the way. I may not have a job title with the word ‘executive‘ in it anymore, but I have something much more precious – free time, a rather vivid imagination and a reasonably healthy intellect with which to play with. I just need to use it.
Thanks to anyone who has made it all the way through this mammoth post of mine. I’m off back to the books, and the fountain pen, the ink stained fingers and the occluded path I’ve chosen to follow. Thanks to wonderful writers like Hannah who make me realise that I’m not alone and that what I’m feeling is perfectly acceptable. And the greatest thanks to HU for giving me one of the best labels of all – beloved.