In my old career, I would mop up the aftermath of corporate stress. The very worst cases would land on my desk – or in my inbox, moreover – where I would consider and ‘solution’ them for the company, finding a route through the messy undergrowth that had led to corporate litigation between employee and workplace. When there was nowhere else to go but the law. The employee would say ‘I’ve consulted my lawyer’ and we would say ‘Good!’, knowing that then it would be slightly less David and Goliath; we the corporate monolith, they the small pebble. I would search the technicalities, absorb myself in the risk assessment, brief the executives and we’d stagger towards some sort of outcome. At that time, I felt distant from the complainants, it wasn’t until I left the job that I allowed myself to really think about how their lives had been, and what had compelled them to litigate against their employer. There was a strong current of blame that pushed them along; it had to be someone’s fault, someone had to be to blame, and I recall writing policy documents about how causation is not definable.
It seems a long way off now, I am out the other side. But there is a large part of me that misses that work, the completeness of it. The shade you feel under a corporate umbrella, which I suspect can only be found when the company is as large and well-known as the one I worked for. Now there is no umbrella, and instead I feel the blinding glare of reality all of the time. When you forge a (new) career you have to evaluate daily. No boss, no objectives, no appraisal. No executives, no corporate perks, no training. In writing, it’s challenging even to keep colleagues. In fact nothing of my previous life features other than the pill of experience that I swill down when I am writing; when the words come from somewhere I once went, or heard someone say, or from that attempt to express the unsaid.
I met with my MA colleagues at our college, to retrace our steps I suppose, and when speaking to the under-graduates, we all realised our time there has passed. Going back felt furtive and confusing, and we all came away wondering what strange territory we are in now, as writers. If I’d have applied a corporate plan, then my book would be finished, published, marketed and on the best seller list by now. Double digit growth. But of course, in creative endeavours it doesn’t work that way! And as I try to forge forward, it is the mental barriers I create for myself that stop progress, rather than anything external. When studying to be a writer, the concept remains an elusive nymph of a thing that you can sense in your future. I could be a professional writer. It hovers and wavers there in your mind’s eye like heat waves on the horizon. The reality is so different!
We devise ways to make ourselves work. I look at my laptop reproachfully. I schedule ‘writing time’ and feel pangs of envy when I see new books published. I assume every other writer is penning droplets of brilliance, whereas my work comes out leaden, lopsided, lumpy.
What a curious thing being an academic or a creative. So used was I to the definable objectives of the corporate world, everything thought through and cascaded, everyone working to a common goal, and the goal was financially motivated. For many that emphasis would be deplorable, but to me, back then, it made sense. There was an honesty to having blatantly expressed objectives. Maybe what I find frustrating about writing is that it’s so unclear, there is no measure of success. One person might like your work, a million others might not. Or vice versa. The enormity of this principle troubles me and I go back to the mantra that I must write to please myself. Write what I want to read. Write – in the words of Hemingway – hard and clear about what hurts.
In any craft there is the privilege of the practice. How lucky to be able to write! How fortuitous to be released from corporate toil. A chance to regain my cosmic karma after I stopped messing about with litigation defences. We didn’t do it.
I console/distract myself from these unanswerable questions with learning to cross-stitch and coveting expensive shoes. Happy days.
Painting by Vilhelm Hammershøi, ‘Interior with Woman by the Piano’ 1901.