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Working 9 to 5

Over the past two weeks, I have been on a bit of an emotional roller coaster on the work front. I say work front but by that I mean the day job. I finished my M.A. in September last year. For two years, I juggled work alongside my studies. It was tough but I did it. It helped that with the coursework submissions, workshops and lectures, I had a structured timetable to work within. Now, without those deadlines, I have been freewheeling to the point where the wheels almost came off.

I knew I needed a break after the Masters but after a couple of months off, I wanted to knuckle down to my second edit at the start of 2017. It is now nearly March and I have been faffing around. I have a couple of agents interested in seeing my finished manuscript, but even with that motivation, I haven’t been able to focus. I miss my characters, I miss my story and I want to get back to the writing.

Whatever job path I have followed in my career, and there have been a few, I have always been driven to do the best I can. Long hours have never been an issue for me. I have always derived a huge satisfaction from knowing I have done a good job, no matter how much overtime it has taken me to get there, but now there has been a shift. I love my work at the University and supporting the Professor, but if I am sitting at my desk at 7pm at night, I no longer get a sense of achievement. I am knackered by the time I get home and it is not ‘a good fatigue’. I feel empty and flat and I know why it is. I am too tired to write.

To address this, for the past few weeks, I have been battling to get out of the office at 5pm but desperately failing to do so. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, a few days before I went on holiday, I couldn’t cope. I scooped up all my workbooks, went home, and sat there for 48 hours, sobbing over my keyboard as I worked from home. I was miserable. Or as I said to my work colleagues, I was over-tired, overwhelmed and like my little nephew needed some quiet time.

Luckily, as I have mentioned, I was going on holiday to beautiful Devon, with my sister and her family, staying in the idyllic South Hams, and I got the breathing space I needed.

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With that extra time to stop and think, I soon realised there was only one thing preventing me leaving work at 5pm and that was me.

Up until that point, I had been blaming my workload, technology and the hundreds of emails that come into my inbox every week. Certainly the pace at which office work now whirls around you is exhausting and I was beginning to wonder if I had got too old for it all. I was speaking to my friend Michelle about it. She’s a high flyer, working for a top tech company in San Francisco, heading up an International PR team and living on a plane. She knows about technology, she wouldn’t have a job without it, but even she got to a stage where she had to monitor her social media activity.

‘I had to switch off from Facebook. I found myself clicking on videos of sloths sleeping on tree branches. Then I started googling about sloths and how long they spent sleeping on tree branches. Within half an hour of pressing play on a video of a sleeping sloth, I would be an expert on the animal, and the thing is, I really don’t need to know about sloths.’

This is nothing new. The amount of recent studies saying technology is bad for our health and we need to learn to switch off is huge. So it was clear, I needed to tame the technology beast, rather than letting it overwhelm me, but even so, I wasn’t confident I would leave at 5pm.

At the end of my week’s holiday, I spent the weekend with the brilliant writer Finn Clarke, at her beautiful home in the Devon countryside. We spent two glorious days plotting and discussing our writing. I mentioned my work predicament and how I was too tired to write.

‘You need to just leave at 5pm.’ She made it sound so simple but she had a point. ‘Do it for a month,’ she continued, ‘and you will become Liz who leaves at five, not Liz who sits at her desk ten hours a day.’

‘But I will feel guilty if I don’t get everything done,’ I moaned.

‘You do enough,’ she said. ‘You don’t need to do the overtime to hear how great you are. As women we so often look for the pat on the head to acknowledge what we have achieved but you don’t need to hear that, you do enough.’

She was right. I know I have always been a bit of a ‘praise junkie’, seeking that validation through acknowledgement. It is not that I don’t want to do a good job, or that I am not proud of the job I do, it is just the ‘isn’t she brilliant’, is no longer enough. I don’t want to be the office superstar, I want to go home and write. If I needed any more proof of that, the fun I had with Finn spending 48 hours working out how to circumnavigate a range of plot holes was validation enough.

Luckily for me I have a great boss in the Professor. When I returned to work and announced that I had to leave at 5pm, not only for my sanity but also because that was now the direction of my personal, as well as professional development, he met the challenge head on. Like I say, I love my work at the University and I will do a good job but I was finally embracing that office buzz phrase, ‘establishing a work/life balance’.

Ironically though, having twisted the tables and finally acknowledged the importance of my life outside of work, I have had probably one of the most productive working weeks in a long time. I am now so focused on my 5pm deadline, my prioritisation skills have hit stellar heights and I am whipping the arse of the email beast.

For five days in a row I have left the office on time and I have found myself sitting bewildered on my sofa, looking at several hours stretching ahead of me, which I now understand is called ‘the evening’, ‘my evening’ when I can do what I want. Step one has been achieved.

Like I said, everyone at work is very supportive. The Chief Operating Officer said it was important to make sure I let people know I now leave work at 5pm. So, in the interest of full disclosure…

‘My name is Liz. I work 9 to 5.’

Well on the day job anyway. As I come through the door at 6pm every night, I am met with something I have been neglecting for far too long, a story that needs to be written.

So this week step two. The edit begins….

Yes I did it! I passed my Masters

I did it! I got my MA. More amazingly I passed with Distinction. I was at work when I received the email with my results. I had to print it off and look at the hard copy. Somehow the words on the computer screen didn’t feel real. I went into the Professor’s office clutching the paper.

‘I got my results.’

‘And….’ He swivelled round in his chair.

‘I passed,’ I said, bursting into tears. ‘With Distinction.’

He sat me down, congratulated me, and told me I was in shock. I think he was right – partly. Shock or relief maybe. I finally had the results which I had been so strung out waiting for.

But if I am honest there was a little more to the tears. There is one person above all else I wanted to call with my news, my father or Pops as I called him. But no matter how many times I pick up the phone and dial, he won’t answer.

pops

William John Todman

Growing up my father was a very traditional man, conservative with a small and large ‘c’.  I think he was a little bewildered when I came along. Not at first. I was quite a sweet child, all rosy cheeks and blonde curls but as I knocked on the door of my teenage years, a young girl emerged who decided to question life.

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My father believed that family was at the heart of society. I remember him as a guest on ‘Question Time’ on the radio, asking the panel was society breaking up because women were going out to work. My jaw dropped and so did that of my friends. I was of an age where I had put the School Chaplain into a head spin when I questioned the role of women in the bible. And marriage – what was that all about? One man walks you up the aisle and hands you over to another man? And now my father was saying on live radio women should stay in the home. After it was broadcast he said he was playing devil’s advocate and encouraging a lively debate. But I know at that stage in his life, a small part of him believed it to be true.

However, as I grew up, he in his own way grew, and although I tested him over the years, he was always the gentleman and always a gentle man.

When I was at University, dressed all in black, smoking Marlborough lights and living off vodka, I never really spoke about my father, especially as at that time he was standing to be the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate (PPC) for Cheltenham.

I was a leftie lurvie, studying Drama, far too cool, and like Oregon out of ‘Fresh Meat’, the last thing I wanted to admit to was the fact I went to Cheltenham Ladies’ College and my rather comfortable upper middle class background.liz-in-her-early-twenties

But then my father was splashed all over the papers. He had decided to stand down as the PPC. The opposition at the time battling for the post was John Taylor. Like my father, John Taylor was a brilliant and successful lawyer, but unlike my father, he was black. The racial slurs that came out of Gloucestershire at that time were hateful. My father refused to join a fight where people were judged on their appearance and not on their ideals. I had never felt prouder of him. Several years later, he did go on to re-join the election fight to become an MP, but I will never forget that time he was prepared to put his dream on hold for fairness and equality.

Although I was not on paper what my father expected, he did accept me. Every Sunday we all sat down to a roast dinner after which my father, as a thank you to my mother, would briefly dip his hands into domesticity and a pair of marigold gloves. One time as he was washing up and I was on drying up duty, Gloria Gaynor played on the dodgy old cassette player. The song was ‘I am what I am’.

He turned to me and smiled. ‘This is your song.’

I picked up a plate from the draining board. ‘Not that it matters if I was,’ I said, wiping the flower-patterned china, ‘but you do know I am not gay?’

‘Yes, I know,’ he said turning on the tap so hard we both got sprayed with water. ‘But you are living life your way. You are who you are.’

I never set out to break any norms. I just had a lot of questions about it all. I still do. I think he knew then it was unlikely his daughter was going to get married, live in suburbia and be an integral member of the PTA.

I pushed Pops on many occasions. Over the years he was always the man I wanted to call, to share the good news and the bad. Although when I was in my twenties, he took too many late night phone calls from me. It was a strange decade for me, fuelled by a lifestyle of pubs and clubs, my anxieties spiralled. But my father was always there, picking up the phone at 1am, and patiently listening to my ramblings. He never bit back, he never told me to sort myself out. He just listened and told me he loved me. He gave me unconditional love.

And now, again, I want to call him. I want to pick up a phone and dial. I want to tell him something that he could be proud of. I got my M.A. and I have written my first book. But I can’t because in 2005 he died of cancer.

pops-with-book-on-hillsidePops was always a reader but, towards the end of his life, he discovered a renewed interest in books. During his last couple of years, as he was battling the disease, I would come back from London and spend the weekends with him. We would sit together in the conservatory and read, neither of us needing to say too much.

He wasn’t a religious man. When he was discussing his funeral arrangements with my mother she told him she would like to bury his ashes and put down a headstone. She needed somewhere she could go to visit him. Pops agreed but said he couldn’t guarantee he would always be in.

I would like to think he is somewhere close by and in his calm and quiet way he is watching the family he loved so much but had to leave behind.

Pops if you’re listening – yes I did it, I passed my Masters.

The Post Masters Slump

According to the Professor I work for there is a condition known as the ‘PhD blues’. After two years of intense research, a PhD student writes up their five hundred page study, sweats their way through a four hour Viva, perhaps follows up with a few amendments, but then they’re done. They’ve passed. Then what?

He reckons I am experiencing something similar. After two years of hard graft I have finished my MA (fingers crossed), and the first draft of my book. Perhaps not as intense as the ‘PhD blues’, more an ‘MA slump’, but definitely I have a feeling of now what?

This feeling of uncertainty is magnified by a change that is happening at work. My day job is not going anywhere but who I work with could change and that is throwing up questions in my mind. After thirty years, could now be the time to have a break from London?

The one thing I am sure of though, whatever I decide or wherever I go, I will keep writing. Depending on the feedback from my tutors, I am hoping my next step will be to go back to the first draft and edit it into something a little more polished. There is of course the concern that my book could be a complete turkey. That being the case, once I’ve locked myself away and sobbed into a pillow for a couple of weeks, I will have a shot at a fresh story. But regardless I am determined to plug away at the writing.

Post MA I now have my weekends back; my evenings too, as I no longer need to tap away on the keyboard trying to hit course deadlines. Having banned myself from looking at my manuscript and doing any work on the book, time is on my side, and it feels very strange. I have found myself walking listlessly around, wondering what to do with myself. A couple of Saturdays ago I decided to go through my TV record box and catch up with all the programmes I’ve missed while studying. After several episodes of Poldark and the Musketeers, I rolled off the sofa, overdosed on men in breeches, knee high boots and flowing shirts slashed to the navel. There’s so much chest hair a girl can take.

Deciding I needed to get some fresh air, I wandered along the Embankment to the Tate and popped in to see the Turner Prize exhibition. There I was confronted with Anthea Hamilton’s twenty-foot high butt cheeks. It was a change from the pecs.

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Turner Prize 2016 Anthea Hamilton

The selection of artists and the work they’ve chosen to exhibit for this year’s Turner Prize is very good. I do love my art, particularly sculpture, but I approach it on an amateur level and sometimes the hanging bin bags and piles of bricks can baffle me.

I noticed there was a theme of the written word running through this exhibition. Anthea Hamilton talks about being strongly influenced by the early 20th Century French writer and dramatist Antonin Artaud and his call for the ‘physical knowledge of images’. That explains the bottom.

Another of the artists, Michael Dean, starts his work with writing – which he then gives physical form. ‘He creates moulds and casts of his words, abstracting and distorting them into an alphabet of human scale shapes.’

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Turner Prize 2016 Michael Dean

Walking through these giant distorted letters I felt like  I was revisiting one of my ‘first draft’ nightmares.

michael-dean

Turner Prize 2016 Michael Dean

After seeing the exhibition I went up to the members’ room. Outside of a library, it is one of the most serene and calm spaces I’ve found in London. Based up on the top tier of the gallery, beneath the large glass domed atrium, chairs and tables are nestled between the cool stone pillars and arches. Over the past two years I’ve spent many a Sunday morning sitting on one of the Art Deco sofas, tucked behind a bronze bust on a plinth, notebook in one hand, coffee in the other, as I worked through my plot.

This time though I just sat quietly with no pen in my hand. And I think perhaps that’s what I need to do. Just sit and be for a bit. Let my brain have some time off and breathe.