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Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Sleepwalking or Wake-Up Time?

  Whereas in real terms 2017 was an especially momentous year for me, primarily in moving to a new house in Hertfordshire and experiencing the first year on earth of our baby daughter, in writing terms it seemed a list of things missed, undone or unfinished. Understandable, perhaps, given the overwhelming importance of these other events and the fact that they took place within the context of a demanding full-time day-job; but in 2018 I've resolved to redress the balance and put all my efforts into devoting more time to my writing, chiefly by accomplishing what I've talked about doing for a number of years and going freelance, both as a writer/editor and as an educational consultant. More time for writing but equally more time for my daughter and partner.
     This feels both like an immensely exciting opportunity and a somewhat daunting challenge but sitting at home in front of the laptop at this slow, muffled start to the year, watching the bleak grey weather animate the birdless garden-trees (instead of attending a meeting about unmarked registers or a briefing in which I have to inform the teachers we won't be replacing the staff-members who've left because there's no money in the budget, as I would have been doing had I returned to my job as college manager), I feel tentatively vindicated - warm, snug and vindicated.
   I was listening to a podcast yesterday in which Richard Herring* was in conversation with the writer and journalist Johann Hari, who's just brought out an intriguing book called Lost Connections. It's concerned with the roots of the growing epidemic of depression within our society and how we attempt to address it through the routine over-prescription of anti-depressants. Hari's argument, based on his own experiences and on encounters with a huge array of researchers, therapists and depressives themselves, is that the drugs don't work and that rather than imbalances of brain-chemistry or other internal factors which lead to anxiety and anhedonia, they're largely precipitated by lifestyle-choices and relationships: the loneliness, disconnectedness and enmity towards others fostered by our atomised self-absorption. "A depressed person is not a broken-down machine but an animal with unmet needs", is how Hari encapsulates it. We're hardwired to live in tribes, as communal beings; the contemporary drive towards self-serving individualism and the "extrinsic motivators" of material acquisition fostered by consumerism are in fact inimical to our deeper natures.
    What particularly caught my interest was when Hari spoke about our experience of work being another aspect of this sense of disconnect in one's own life: in an American survey, the majority of participants said they didn't like their job or hate their job enough to leave it, but were merely "sleepwalking" their way through the weeks, getting through the days and surviving. This seemed to me to exactly capture how I felt about my career: from starting as an enthusiastic, committed teacher with an interest and enjoyment in interacting with special needs students, which I originally undertook as a way to pay the bills as a struggling young writer/musician as well as what I saw as a selfless corrective to the potential indulgence of a creative lifestyle, the job overtook more and more of my time and energy, elbowing writing to the sidelines until I barely found time to scribble a note or a few lines of poetry in spare moments.
     For years, in retrospect, I was merely sleepwalking through it, even as I somnambulantly progressed to becoming a manager and Head of Department, job-titles very far from my earlier aspirations and self-image. On another level, perhaps this sleepwalking was a refuge from confronting a long-standing lack of faith in myself as a writer; in other words, it was easier to muddle through in something I no longer took much pleasure in, but could do and even succeed at, rather than engage with the much more complex challenge and personal investment of writing books which I could potentially fail at; easier to keep postponing or sabotaging my vocation as a writer than knuckle down to completing the novel I've been tinkering sporadically with for around 15 years.
     Towards the end of last year, feeling myself in the fortunate position of having both a highly supportive partner and a small amount of savings to give me some leeway, I was at last frustrated enough with the budget-driven stringencies of working in FE in the age of austerity and assured enough that I could find a meaningful alternative to make the break with my college-job. I feel like my whole adult life I've blamed extrinsic factors for obstructing my access to the intrinsic compulsion to understand myself and the world through the process of writing and ultimately communicating this writing back to the world. As I say, I'm aware of the risks and challenges involved, but at the moment - the trees are still now, the wood-pigeons have returned to the upper branches, like words alighting into an uncluttered mind - I've never been surer I've made the right decision.

*As I found out from his Leicester Square Podcasts, Richard Herring also moved to Hertfordshire last year although I don't think he's disclosed exactly where
   
   

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