Earlier this month, I resigned as Senior Ranger and departed the organisation and the field in which I’ve worked for the last decade of my life. “Park ranger” is no longer a key part of my identity. I’ll have to update my profile here – and elsewhere – once I can actually figure out what my identity looks like now.
I’ve started work at a customer service call centre, on casual hours. I’ll have the chance to move to part-time – and a more stable routine – once I’ve been there a few months.
The complete rejiggering of my life has been greeted by friends, family, and workmates with all kinds of supportiveness, and for the most part I’m really appreciating it. But I want to talk about one particular sentiment that’s been cropping up a lot in certain people’s words of support:
You’ll have so much time now to focus on your writing.
It’s great that you’re taking the next step on your writing journey.
Congratulations – I can’t wait to see your name on the cover of a book!
Here’s the thing, though: since handing in my resignation – blog posts aside – I’ve barely written a word of fiction.
My brilliant career
The idea that quitting my job is all about pursuing my writing hasn’t sprung from nowhere. In fact, when people have asked about my plans, “more time for writing” tends to be my default answer. It’s easy, it’s at least part of the truth, and it’s so much less messy than the rest of my reasons for walking away from a large chunk of my former life.
So I can hardly blame anyone for assuming that this is the beginning of a marvellous new era for me of output and publication and success. Even I’ve been daring to hope it might be so.
And therein lies the danger.
My career goes bung
The problem with greeting my new situation like it’s a mark of success is that, from here in the middle of it, I’m feeling anything but successful right now.
I’ve gone from a stable, full-time role with responsibility over a large area of bushland, the trust of my supervisor to act largely independently, and a modestly healthy salary to a casual role with uncertain hours and variable (and distinctly modest) pay, where my sole responsibility is to show up on time and do my job as instructed.
It’s not that it’s a bad job – but the last time I worked this way I was a student paying my way through university and trying to figure out what to do with an Arts degree, not a thirty-something weighed down by the suspicion that they’re supposed to have a career by now.
So if success isn’t to be found in my day job, it must lie in my writing, right?
Asking too much
But the idea that writing is my new career/defining identity/pathway to success – that creates a hell of a lot of pressure to write under.
Even on my best days, anxiety generates the urgent need to prove to myself that I’m worthy of this identity: writer. Anxiety judges every word I put on the page against what my brain insists on thinking of as “real writers” – highly successful authors at the top of my field, like Neil Gaiman and N. K. Jemisin.
Never mind that I’m still a relative beginner. Never mind that I know first drafts are universally terrible. I’m afraid of seeing my words and recognising that they’re simply not good enough; and the easiest way to avoid that is not to put any words down in the first place.
I’ve developed a few decent tricks to get myself writing anyway (more on those in another post), but the more people around me talk like I’m on the way to some kind of writing career, the harder it becomes to push through the fear that my words will prove them wrong.
And that’s why I find myself writing close enough to nothing, even though I have one story almost completed and ready to send out and two more queuing up in my head and shouting at me when I’m trying to sleep.
I want to write. I want to enjoy writing. But I can’t do the latter – I can barely do the former – if I build up too many expectations around my writing.
So with the greatest love and respect for the people in my life who’ve been talking this way: I hereby reject the dogma of success.
I didn’t leave rangering behind because I wanted to succeed. I didn’t even leave it behind primarily because I wanted to write.
I left it behind because I needed less stress in my life. I left it behind because responsibility and anxiety are a terrible combination. I left it behind so I would have more time and energy to devote to looking after myself. I left it behind because I wanted to be healthy, and to be happy.
Working at the call centre may not provide anything that looks like success, but here’s what it does provide: enough money to get by and even enjoy the occasional treat; a role I feel comfortably capable of doing, free from the sensation of being constantly out of my depth; a regular dose of the simple pleasure I get from knowing I’ve helped someone out when they needed it; and more time for self-care and for the things that are important to me – including, but not exclusive to, writing.
Redefining my perspective
This is my credo:
It’s not failure to choose happiness over success.
It’s OK if I never have anything that most people would call a career.
There’s nothing wrong with only getting one story published a year. There’s nothing wrong with getting no stories published in a year.
I write because writing is important and meaningful to me, not because I expect it to lead to accolades and glory.
If I can just remember that, if I can just believe it – maybe I can set my fears off to one side, enjoy the successes that come to me, and then, without expectations, get on with the act of writing.
Addendum: My Career Goes Bung remains my favourite title for a book sequel of all time – and it’s oddly reassuring to find that Miles Franklin worked most of her life as either a secretary or a cook, only published about 30 books in sixty-plus years of writing, and put many of those out under pseudonyms because she feared poor reviews.