Tag Archives: University

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.

jo-and-liz-mum-and-dadv2

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 First Draft

A couple of weeks ago I completed the first draft of my first novel. Everyone tells you writing a novel is a marathon and not a sprint. After what I have been through over the past year I understand why.

The novel was part of the MA in Novel Writing which I have been completing at City, University of London. So it hasn’t been all about the book. There has also been workshops, lectures, tutorials and other assignments to complete, but it was the novel that nearly finished me off.

In the last three months I have visited my doctor more times than I have done in the past three years.

I am lucky I have a doctors’ surgery that is patient with patients and open at weekends. There was a particularly dark moment one Sunday morning. I was convinced I was having a heart attack. Gripping pain in my left arm, dizziness and palpitations. It turned out to be an anxiety attack.

‘But I don’t get stressed,’ I said to the doctor.

‘Do you feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest?’ he calmly asked, unfolding the blood pressure cuff and unclipping the oxygen monitor from my finger.

‘Not so much an elephant,’ I said, although I did want to point out that if an elephant was sitting on my chest I probably wouldn’t be feeling anything, ‘Just a novel.’

I was physically manifesting symptoms of stress. The characters, structure and plot issues of my book had invaded my head and were causing anxiety attacks, night terrors and palpitations. Combine this with back pain and a frozen shoulder from sitting at a computer for hours at a time. I was a wreck.

I came out of the surgery with a handwritten five point check-list of what the warning signs of an actual heart attack are and a promise to my doctor that, if my book ever got published, I would send him a copy.

bigstock-woman-typing-madly-retro-cli-37020847Writing a book – even the shaky first draft that is my book has been hard. It wasn’t made easier by having a full-time job. Finding the mental energy to be creative after eight hours in the office was a challenge. But it was often the intensive periods when I took leave from work to focus on the writing, that I really felt I was losing the plot and not just the one on the page.

After one such week, locked away on my own, writing eighteen hours a day with no other company than my fictional characters, a close friend became concerned about my rambling online messages. He decided to mount a rescue mission and turned up on my doorstep. There he discovered a deranged writer who hadn’t slept properly for six days.

He insisted on taking me out for dinner but only after I’d taken a shower, found some clean clothes and brushed my hair. After an hour in the restaurant, and once I’d re-engaged with verbal communication, I tried to explain to him the frustrations of it all.

‘It’s like banging your head against a wall,’ I said.

‘I had an image of you sitting on your terrace, wearing floaty dresses, sipping martinis, and typing away,’ he said.

I thought about the night before when I’d lain on the sofa, weeping, a pillow over my head, willing the neurons in my brain to come up with a solution to the crater sized plot hole I’d just discovered 60k into my book.

‘Not exactly,’ I said.

‘Then why are you doing it?’

He had a point. Why was I doing it? I couldn’t give him an answer.

In fact not until I typed the last word on the last page did I have an answer. Then I knew. I love stories, always have done, whatever form they come in, plays, films, books or day dreams. And to have my story unfold in 398 pages felt pretty special. Building up every agonising twist and turn of my plot, creating my characters and then colouring them in – the process might be hard but when it comes together it is magical.

So now what?

I have submitted my first draft as part of my degree. The manuscript is saggy and baggy like its author, but I am hoping we can both firm up in the second draft, and yes I am going back for more.

But in the meantime I am taking Stephen King’s advice in his book ‘On Writing’ – walk away from your first draft. In the UK, October is the month for pausing. Go Sober for October. Stoptober. For me it is going to be ‘Take a break from writing your book October’. I am going to use the time to rest, recuperate and get ready for round two.

I end with a short clip.

Often when I was writing, I would play this. It reminded me that as a writer, along with your protagonist, you have to keep pushing through those walls to get to the end.