Other articles on the ups and downs of the pursuit of the art of writing can be found on the Weblog from July 2008 on. In the meantime, I hope you find this outline/cautionary tale of a writer’s life entertaining. No doubt it will have more than a few resonances for other members of the writing community, whose careers and writing paths have most likely had their own peculiar turns and twists!
Why must that toad, writing, squat on my life?
image by Paul F Newman: email@example.com
“ You can’t have YET ANOTHER career incarnation” commented an incredulous old friend.
Oh yes I can.
It is mid-June 2008. After a seven year work sabbatical from 2001, during which amongst other things I wrote two and a half books, I consider myself to be in the post-career phase of my life. As such, I can do what the hell I like now. So I am having a great deal of fun setting up my very own writer’s website – ably assisted by choreographer, dance teacher and fellow AppleMac devotee, Susan Elena. I intend to run this site for the pleasure, inspiration, information, support and entertainment of fellow writers and readers.
It occurred to me the other day that I’ll have to order some new business cards come the autumn, when the site officially goes live. Currently, it is lurking in a remote corner of cyberspace until Susan and I are ready to promote it. I shall have to invent a new career title to go with the cards. All sensible-ish suggestions considered !
Many years have passed since I last ordered business cards. Two sets, it was then. On one set, I was a professional astrologer and astrology teacher. On the other, a private counsellor and trainer; in those days, I worked under two different names : my own, and my married name. Since I received many referrals from GPs and psychiatrists in my work as a therapist, it was not politic for them to know that I was also an astrologer. No matter how reputable and well trained a professional you are, no matter how often you firmly say that you don’t do newspaper astrology or fortune telling, the word astrologer is not a neutral word. Neither is the label. Neither are the images which it evokes, usually lurid and wildly inaccurate.
Other threads woven through those years included some public speaking, radio broadcasting, running ‘Women and Health’ courses for university extra mural departments, being (with a female colleague) the first woman in Scotland to have the nerve to set up assertiveness courses for men only…. One of my last freelance jobs before the sabbatical involved managing the advertising side of an international journal of psychological astrology.
“ Enough, already!” you might think. Not quite. Those years of freelancing were preceded by almost a decade in social work, latterly in psychiatric hospitals. I obtained my first social work job despite falling out during the interview with a little man who looked like a street sweeper. I told him that I would take the post, if offered, for its interest value despite the rubbish wages. He turned out to be the Director of Social Work for the region….
Prior to that career change, which probably saved my sanity,“ You locked yourself up in that daft wee flat in Dundee and nearly drove yourself round the bend”. I have never lacked succinct friends. This one was commenting tartly on a two year period at the end of my twenties when I gave up a perfectly satisfactory, if peripatetic, career as an English lecturer in further education to stake my all on being a writer.
My first play was written in the air traffic controllers’ building of a small island airport off the west coast of Scotland, UK. Making coffee for the controllers several times a day was the only fee for a loan of their spare office. My late father never believed that I had not traded sexual favours for such an opportunity. The BBC drama department contacted me to discuss my unsolicited play with a view to production. After two revisions, they still didn’t like the ending. Not realising how much sweat was required, or how well I had done to get so far with this first effort, I tossed the third revision into a drawer and proceeded to write the lyrics for a jazz work which went on to tour Scotland. I was to be presented on stage as the glamorous author. Sadly, I had fallen off my ten speed canary yellow ladies’ racing bike a few days before; the glamour was deeply compromised by a leg wrapped to the crotch in bandages.
It might have been an omen. Not long afterwards, a combination of dire poverty necessitating employment, and a genuine desire to help other people, led me to the door of the Social Work Department. My first task as an unqualified social worker was to contact the local electricity board to prevent my own electricity from being cut off. My new colleagues thought this was hilarious.
More years later than I care to admit, I’m at it again – setting myself up as a writer.
“Why, why, WHY ?”
I can understand my friend’s incredulity. I’ve had more variations on the career theme than most folk have had hot dinners. The sabbatical provided a rest from tempestuous youth and exhausting early middle age. Why not choose something undemanding now, like chicken sexing or macrame?
I’ll tell you why. The poet Philip Larkin asked : “Why should I let the toad work Squat on my life?”
How I empathise! That toad, writing, has squatted on my life more or less since I was born.The golden thread of consistent attachment to writing, or writing’s consistent attachment to ME, has run through the whole of my life. I have always been true to it, in my fashion, during the promiscuous twists and turns of my vocational quest.
At school, whilst other kids seemed to dread their composition ink exercises, I looked forward to mine. It was an opportunity to channel into focused black and white the swirling imaginative colours which whirled round my young brain, fed by my six library books a week habit. I read anything and everything. This voracity had its downside. Victorian novelist H Rider Haggard’s myth-steeped descriptions of his characters’ adventures in Africa last century fascinated me. But da Silva, the Dutch explorer whose frozen body was found centuries after his death in a cave high up Mt. Kilimanjaro, transferred himself from “King Solomon’s Mines” to the wardrobe in my bedroom, on and off, for a couple of years. Getting to sleep was no mean feat with an imagination like mine!
My ‘real’ life – eating, sleeping, going to school – was incidental to my inner life which was full of the really interesting questions: “Why are we alive, where do we go after death, do we live on several planes of existence at once, what is happening in other galaxies, if there are x million Catholics and even more Buddhists and Hindus, how come they are all Wrong and Damned and a few thousand members of the Free Church of Scotland are Right and Saved? What would happen if you unwrapped an Egyptian mummy? I wonder if I could make a shrunken head like the Jivaro people? Why did people paint pictures on cave walls thousands of years ago? “
These issues, fed by reading, preoccupied me for years. I must have written about them, and my essays were often commended. However, attempts on leaving school to obtain my childhood exercise books were met with a bureaucratic “No” .
During my twenties, spent in further education teaching, I had a ‘Personally Speaking’ column in a well-known provincial Scottish island newspaper, a copy of which I was reliably informed went to the British Embassy in Peking in China every week. I also wrote for the local paper in a small industrial town in West Lothian, Scotland, where I had my first English lecturing job in the local technical college. ‘How I was left on the shelf – and found true happiness’ was my contribution to the West Lothian Courier’s Spring Brides Feature one year. “Couldn’t you have been a bit more romantic ?” was the Editor’s only comment. Harrowed in my mid twenties by the realisation that time was speeding on apace without my having yet written an autobiography, I then began the first of what were to be many bouts of journal-keeping.
In my next college job, I became obsessed with writing handouts on literature and effective language use, inspired by a male colleague who also loved writing handouts for his students. I fell in love with him. My energies moved from sending my work out for publication, to staying in at night and juggling passion with passionate handout composition. The ‘Personally Speaking’ column was stoical in the face of my neglect.
There were other diversions, leading to my final college job before sacrificing all for my art. I was living in Bath in England – where, incidentally, I met a strange little man in a launderette who drew up my horoscope and predicted yet another career, as an astrologer. Just before leaving that college to return to my native island to Be A Writer, I had a very scary encounter with a man who might have been a murderer. This became the subject of my first play.
The years in social work honed my writing skills further – writing reports was a central part of the job. Adoption assessments, fostering assessments, Children’s Panel reports, social enquiry reports for the courts: I happily turned my hand to them all, gaining a degree of notoriety amongst my colleagues. They usually hated writing reports. I loved it. “ Look at Anne,” my first boss used to say, as I hid out in a corner of our open plan office, trying to find some peace to compose my latest masterpiece. “ She is seriously weird. You’d think she was Franz Kafka, the way she crouches over that bit of paper!”
For the first seven years of self-employment, my writing skills were channelled and honed some more. I wrote case notes for my counselling and astrology client files, confidential reports for GPs and psychiatrists, and endless handouts for my assertiveness training courses and astrology classes. Students were presented in every class with flurries of A4 sheets in a rainbow of colours. Goodness only knows what they did with them all.
“ You should be an English teacher,or a writer, Anne,” said a student one day. “ This astrology lark obviously doesn’t fulfill your literary side!”
“ Thanks for a very helpful and illuminating suggestion,” was my sarcastic reply.
By the early nineties, the writer in me must have decided that hiding her light under a bushel was no longer sufficient. In 1992 I had my first submission for many years accepted and published by a feisty new Scottish feminist magazine called Harpies and Quines ( their name briefly got them into a fight with Harpers & Queens! )Between 1992 and 2001 I had some forty pieces of journalism, articles and essays published in a wide range of magazines, journals and newspapers from The Mountain Astrologer (USA) to Scotland’s award winning newspaper The Sunday Herald. I was the agony aunt in their ‘Mindworks’ supplement during the summer of 1999.
Then, at the end of 2001 I keeled over completely following a prolonged family crisis which triggered a menopause from hell. My sabbatical was mandatory; for months I could barely get out of bed. Life was a matter of surviving not merely from one day to the next but from hour to hour, racked as I was by acute anxiety, flushes, palpitations, chronic insomnia and exhaustion – all brought on by burnout and a severe hormone imbalance.
Did this shut the writer up? Not a bit of it. For the first six months, as a central plank in my sanity-saving strategy, I kept a daily ‘Gratitude Journal’. No matter how bad the day had been, each night I wrote down six things for which I was grateful, no matter how small. For nearly two years I kept an imagery journal, to record the astonishing guiding imagery which arose spontaneously without any conscious intention or effort on my part. I still keep a brief daily diary and a weekly perspective journal.
Nine months after collapsing, I felt able to stagger into my office one or two afternoons a week. The very slow completion of my first book over the next year gave me a creative focus, which was a huge help in the protracted process of recovery. The book is titillatingly titled “Jupiter meets Uranus: from erotic bathing to star gazing“– but is in fact a research study of the individual and collective manifestations of the 1997 Jupiter Uranus planetary conjunction, set in its mythological and historical context. It was published by the American Federation of Astrologers in April 2009.
As perusers of the website will discover, I had a variety of articles on various topics published during 2001-7, and spent much of 2007 completing the first draft of ”Wisps from the Dazzling Darkness: a sceptic’s take on paranormal experience “, a memoir of my intermittent ( and not very welcome) paranormal experiences, which I sent out for reading in the spring of 2008. Autumn 2009 and three revisions later, I am now looking for a publisher. And the half book I mentioned in the first paragraph of this article? Watch this space ! You will be the first to read extracts – when I find the time to complete it after pleasing, inspiring, informing, supporting and entertaining you all….
2200 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page
‘On Writing’ theme
Articles published under this theme from September 2008 are to be found HERE, as well as being listed below:
Astrological help for Writers – 29.9.08 : updated 25.2.10
(featured as Guest piece on Write Anything site)
Annie Evett : ‘SHAPING THE WRITER’ – 31.1.10