It’s been a tough month at work. I’ve made a series of life choices that have led me to an incredibly precarious and sometimes humiliating work situation. I love the work I do but the work I do is often done inside large machines which don’t seem to share my love of the work I do.
Over the last ten or so years, as my academic ‘portfolio career’ has robbed me of more and more self-confidence and paid less and less for increasing demands, I’ve found ways to keep my spirits up: I’ve tried to write around my paid work; I’ve taken responsibility for developing my skills in formal and informal training situations; I’ve tried to do at least some work for free each month that gives me hope; I’ve made an effort to pay attention to and feel grateful for work I get asked to do which I love with people I appreciate and feel appreciated by; I’ve reminded myself that what I do now is a lot easier than the work I did in retail and factories and incomparably simple compared to the times I had no money and no house and it was cold – that mine are champagne problems. Starting my podcast was a way of having a small patch of control over my work life – talking to people I thought were exciting so I would stay excited, in order to pass this excitement onto the people I work with who want to be excited about writing. I love producing my podcast more than almost anything else I do.
I’ve created a coping strategy for the loneliness of being temporary and the fear of being replaceable. I think of myself as Pip, Incorporated and try to be the manager I want. ‘Pip,’ I might say. ‘You really didn’t know how to answer that question on plot – maybe this one-day workshop would be good?’ Most of the time, it works, I’m okay – I can keep myself afloat psychologically which means I can make myself available to keep myself afloat financially. But, every now and then I get reminded of my place – I am temporary and replaceable – and all the bad decisions I’ve made come into stark relief and all the opportunities that I turned down run past my eyes in technicolour and the next thing I know it’s four am and I’m the worst manager in the world. It’s four am and I’m angry and sad and awake thinking at all my problems like it will make a difference.
Last year I won a lot of money. The money I won is the equivalent to two or three years of my average income. Theoretically, I could have stopped paid work and not started again until next year. I could be sleeping. I could be in control of my time. I could be writing full-time. But I’m not and I can’t see any world where I would. We’ve used some of the money to pay debt, we’ve used some of the money for things we couldn’t afford otherwise and the rest of the money is sitting in our bank because, mostly, I have no idea where my next paid work is coming from and the money in the bank buys me a lot of peace of mind.
This is what I tell myself but it’s hardly, partly true.
Where I come from, work is important – real work. Where I come from, most of the work I do is not real work. Writing is not real work. The last real work I did was when I worked as a hairdresser. Recently, I got to do some hairdressing and it was the most ‘right’ I’ve felt in ages. This was the first invoice I’ve ever sent that didn’t feel fraudulent. My ideas about work were planted early and have deep roots. Some activities deserve to be paid for, some do not. A friend often talks about ‘Capital W’ work as opposed to ‘work’ work. I’ve never been quite sure which is which but I relate completely to the split in my mind between the work I get paid for that puts food on our table and my writing. And here-in lies the mindfuck – most of the work that puts food on our table I get to do because I write. The money I won, I won because I wrote a book. It’s got very messy. I’ve let it get messy. I’ve shat, as my dad would say, where I eat.
I have exasperated friends. My exasperated friends have tried time and again to help me with my work situation. They have shown by example how I can get myself out of the shambles I’ve got myself into. A few weeks ago, a friend who works successfully as a freelancer drew a cross on a piece of paper splitting it into four quadrants. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is the work you love and that pays well. This is the work you love and it pays badly. This is the work you don’t love that pays well and this is the work you don’t love and pays badly.’ We both looked at the page. ‘You want to stay out of here,’ he said circling the final quadrant. I understood, he was right.
Years ago, a poet said to a class I was in, ‘The most important decisions you’ll make as a writer is what you do for a living.’ That was when I decided to go to library school and at four am I curse myself for leaving that real work. Instead, I made some decisions, that seemed right at the time but I see now were foolish and have wound me up here.
With some of the money I won, I bought myself a Kindle – it has a back-light. I’ve never been the best sleeper. I’ve spent years of my life lying awake thinking. But not since I bought my Kindle. Now, when I can’t sleep I read. Over the last month, when I haven’t been able to sleep I’ve been reading Tana French’s crime novel In The Woods. It’s an astoundingly good read. I love crime fiction a lot and it didn’t occur to me until I was reading In the Woods at four in the morning during this tough month that I might love crime fiction because it’s about work.
My favourite tasks are process-oriented. As a kid, I spent hours putting cards into their suits or ordering objects by colour. One of my favourite jobs was in a mailing factory where we filled envelops or put circulars in newspapers. You had to have a system – either you’d collate the contents in piles and then fill the envelopes, or you’d pull the fliers off one-by-one and put them in the envelopes. I think this is why I love editing my podcast so much – it’s often like a puzzle that can only be solved by working out a process step-by-step to break the track, remove something and put it back together. I guess this is why the procedural appeals – the obsessive checking and cross-checking in order to determine a pattern from the parts of a whole. Then the stomach-drop as the pattern reveals itself and it looks more and more like truth.
But, really, any work will do for me. I love reading about work. Maybe it’s because of what work does to relationships. I left school young and inept at ‘people’ as a subject. They had confused me at school and when I started work at a hairdressing salon I was thrown into this odd community of people acting in their work-roles interacting with people acting in their customer roles. Even the most genuine of us were still in the salon, talking to each other in between clients, saving something of ourselves for the moment at 9.20 pm when we could sit in our cars or on the bus in the most sough-after state – alone.
When I started hairdressing, in the 1990s, ‘being yourself’ was not encouraged. We were told in the salon to be professional – as professional as a doctor or a dentist – which hosed another type of weird over the situation. Looking back, I think ‘professional’ might have meant ‘unflappable’ or ‘unemotional’ or, probably, ‘not like our human selves’. I’d argue that all this role-playing lays the best foundation for fiction. I’m thinking especially, at the moment, of Cark Shuker’s incredible novel A Mistake, where the situation forces people to do things they would never do if they weren’t playing this work game. Like all good constraints, this odd navigation of the unspoken rules of the workplace forces the characters in Shuker’s book to show themselves more clearly than if they were at home on the couch surrounded by the people they love. See also Brannavan Gnanalingam, Megan Dunn, Bae Suah, Anne Kennedy –one of the few writers I know that can make writing feel as much like real work as mending and altering. Work is weird and we are weird in work and I just don’t know another place where I can observe and experience the type of weird which I find invaluable to my writing.
It’s been a tough month at work but I wonder if this is why I keep myself in it? I always seem to want to write about work. I’ve written about jobs I’ve never worked at but I don’t think I could write about work if I wasn’t working. I can imagine my way into a different job but never into the experience of working if I’m not – of giving up that part of me that I do at work, of being unappreciated, of it mattering whether I’m appreciated or not, of putting on that weird outfit that is ‘me at work’, of being forced into my true self by the pressures and constraints and soul-destruction of work.
These things don’t just come from paid work, it’s not about the money. I don’t think I really understood work until I worked fulltime, alone looking after another human being for no money. During this time I realised that if I wanted to write I wouldn’t be able to wait for any muse. That is one of the best things about having work that isn’t writing in your life. Maybe the baby would sleep for an hour, maybe he would sleep for ten minutes – either way I needed to start writing now. Even if I could make a life without earning money could I manufacture this urgency from writing? Parenting was hard because there was no way out of it. I doubt I could ever take writing this seriously. Writing could never be a tiny boss like babies are.
I have a theory that frightens me: probably, the best job a writer can have is one that is as far away from the act of writing as possible – boilermaker, car salesman, exterminator. It frightens me because, if it’s correct, I see now I’ve been deluded. Every decision I’ve made has been so I can write. My background taught me writing isn’t real work, so I figured, erroneously, that I needed to get further and further away from real work and now, I fear, I’m incapable of it.
I cut hair recently for two days in an environment more like a holiday camp than a busy salon and by the end of it my body hurt. When I play this game of ‘what job’, it’s fantasy. I’m acting like I have infinite choice. No one would want me to work in their shoe shop or their clothes shop – I let that ship sail years ago when I left a perfectly good job selling beads and summer dresses to go back to hairdressing which I then left to teach hairdressing at a vocational college. It was one of the many strings of decisions I made based on the illusion that I needed to get away from where I’d come from. I was rising above my station, as my father would say. I was putting on airs. No one would want me to sell their shoes now and all of the vocational colleges are shutting. So that backfired. My escape into work that I thought would help me write has me up at four am regretting – and there is nothing worse for writing than regret.
In the end, even the regret is useless. The sleepless nights won’t help me at all because what my bad month at work has brought home – noisily, boisterously – is that really the choice is out of my hands. The big machines want less and less to do with the work I do. They’re closing and changing and within the year I suspect they won’t want much to do with me at all. And maybe that’s what I want. I’m not sure I trust myself anymore. I class-shifted because I thought I needed to – because I thought that was the only way to be a writer. I’ve never felt at home in the big academic machines – I feel too loud, too big, my lunch never looks right. I try to be quiet, act small, but I think I’ll always smell wrong. Constraint is good but I’m starting to wonder if there is some constraint that is just constraint. Maybe I’m just stuck.
Image by Patrick Tomasso