Making a mark

26 02 2013


Over half-term last week I went for a walk with a friend to check on some calves. The animals heard us coming and called down to us from the high path. It was bitterly cold and not the sort of weather for standing around even though we were protected from the worst of the wind by some sheltering trees. It was a short walk, but one I wished were longer because my friend asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks.

‘What motivates you?’

At the very least, that’s a five-mile question. My friend had already mentioned the idea of legacy and that had got me thinking about what I would wish to leave behind once my life is spent. A legacy is different from a memory, from merely not being forgotten. A legacy is more than a single act. A legacy requires something like a body of work, or at least consistent effort in that direction.

When I first started to write professionally, I didn’t think about what it would all amount to. I just poured all my energy into the current writing project and came up for air months, or more often years later. Since I completed my last writing project, I’ve given myself a bit more recovery time than usual because I now want to write only when I have something worthwhile to say. I’m no longer interested in writing for the income alone. I now feel that whatever I write next will be written out of passion.

‘Passion motivates me.’

All the books I adore, all the art I love, all the films that mean something to me, all the people I admire have passion. I’m reminded now of another friend who lost her art a few months ago and has spent this winter working on new beautiful, intricate, extraordinary work, in an ecstasy of relief that she is still able to find the motivation and the heart to not reproduce but fully recover her art. I, for one, can’t wait for her first exhibition because I know that the work has been created through passion. ‘I can’t explain it,’ she said when she showed me her work. ‘But I just love it.’

Loving what you do is a legacy as long as you love it and practise it even when you feel disheartened. Even when you feel that no one is listening. After the walk to see the calves, we settled down in front of the fire with a pot of tea and some fudge brownies. We talked about philosophy. One of the benefits of my job teaching philosophy is that it immediately encourages people to talk about big stuff.

A theme emerged: how to find meaning in life. No matter how far you stray in philosophical enquiry – and it is possible to wander quite far and get lost in the woods – this theme turns up nearly every time to guide you back to what’s important. What life is for is the ultimate philosophical question. Socrates built his career around it; Plato was preoccupied by the best way to organise society and Aristotle was keen to find the answer to lasting happiness or eudaimonia, a state closer to well-being or what we might call fulfilment.

What fulfils us also brings us closer to well-being. The difficulty lies in finding a job or a cause or a way of life that allows us to become fulfilled.

‘It’s just so difficult to get heard.’

This from a teenager who was joining in the fireside debate. Already he recognises how hard it will be to make his mark in his chosen field of engineering. Here is a teenage boy with a passion to build something great. Does it matter if he doesn’t get heard?

I think his point about competition is sobering, but only part of the story. If you choose to build or create one of the first things you must do is to ignore the competition. Not because you don’t care what has gone before, not even because there is plenty of wonderful work out there that totally inspires you, but because you are creating your own legacy. When you are ready to build, you will find people who are ready to listen.

Day jobs

11 10 2012


This week I counted my number of day jobs. I have five. That’s more jobs than I have ever had. Writing is included in my day jobs even though I rarely write in daylight hours.  It’s a job I must slot in with the others.

Managing five jobs takes dexterity and planning. I’m still learning how to work my new portfolio existence. Sometimes it feels almost like another job in itself. The hardest part is remembering who I am when I wake up:  the Writer who sits in her dressing gown with a pot of coffee and a stack of pages to edit before lunch? The freelance journalist?

I don’t want to give up my other jobs.  Teaching Philosophy and Ethics to A Level students stretches my mind and keeps me in touch with young people. Teaching means I get properly dressed in the mornings and have to be organised. I like being part of a school: the routines, the predictability, the structure. I measure my life in terms.

You’d think a fiction writer would be able to handle being five people at once, but I can’t. I have to role play wholeheartedly. So when I’m the Teacher, I’m her one hundred percent. Over the past week I’ve been planning for lesson observation to the new Ofsted criteria, which means I’ve been the Teacher one hundred percent every day and at night I can’t even think about writing. If I do start to think about writing, it makes me want to weep, and I’ve got to hold myself together to be the Teacher, especially an Ofsted-approved one.

One of my other jobs involves working with horses and troubled young people. In my role as Horse Handler, I get up in the mornings and put on jeans that are still muddy from the day before. I take a flask of hot soup to a yard that has wonderful panoramic views and I get to ride as part of my duties. What a wonderful job it is. Seeing a young person transform through their connection with a chosen horse inspires me. I love going to work even when it is lashing down with rain. When I’m working with horses and young people, I am completely absorbed and utterly fulfilled. My other jobs don’t exist.

Driving back from one of my jobs, I design ideas for my other jobs. I’ve always done this. I work out what I need to do when I’m in the car, freewheeling between identities. It strikes me that driving would be a perfect job for me. I could take people where they wanted to go and earn a living out of it. I wouldn’t have to spend time planning or photocopying or reading or thinking. I could just drive and my mind would be free.

I wonder, though, how long it would take before I’d invented my way into another life?

One job feeds into another. My jobs enrich different parts of my being and keep me on my toes physically, emotionally and intellectually. At the moment I’m also working on writing projects around wild Dartmoor ponies and running creative writing and philosophy courses at a friend’s ancient house in Somerset. When I go to Sherwood, all I want to do is read and write. If I could, I would stay there for a month with a stack of books and white paper. I would write seamlessly with a fountain pen and ignore email. I’d take photographs daily and restart my year of poems. I’d read philosophy with proper attention. There would be space to stretch into those dance exercises I flex in my mind when I don’t have time to actually do them.

A month away?

I’d miss the horses and the rain and the driving around thinking about new ideas and how I can get time off to write.

Sometimes more is more.

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