I have changed career many times. I once spent nine deadly months in fashion PR. (I’m sure fashion PR is wonderful if you care about fashion.) I have been a PA to: a writer of medical dictionaries (yawn); the MD of a large firm of architects (lots of yummy young interns); a book publisher (enlightening); an oil refinery exec (very interesting); and a priest (a job to love).
I have been a receptionist, an editor, a pen-for-hire. I have written articles on the downstream oil business and uptown manufacturing ethics. I have beta-tested software and written computer manuals. I have worked in a shoe shop. I have made a lot of coffee for a lot of people.
And through it all, I have written. I have written and written and written. Short stories, long stories, novels, confessionals, fairytales. And because of that, I have never felt like a PA or a tea-maker or a shop assistant or an editor.
I am a writer.
This is not the cue for any poncey hair-tossing or prideful smirking. Storytellers tell stories; that’s all. It’s not exactly quantum physics. (Hold that thought, okay?)
So here’s what it’s like for me, this thing called being a writer. At any one time I have three lives on the go. My normal daily life. My imaginative life, which is full of stories and characters and ideas. And my other imaginative life.
In this third life, I live in a timeless village. I think of it as roughly medieval, with a few adjustments: no one dies of dirt, or poverty or other curable diseases, for example. It’s tidy and simple and pastoral –think Hollywood, not bubonic plague. There are no mobiles, no technology, no running water, not much travel. Whatever decisions I make in my everyday life have to be brought home and tested against the village.
Here’s a frivolous example. Yesterday, in my everyday life, I threw an almighty paddy because my house was a tip. Dirty washing on the floor, dirty dishes on the table, the daily grind of what shall I make for dinner—and the family blithely spread-eagled on my handmade (by me) silk cushions which ARE NOT FOR LOUNGING ON.
After a stormy hour of tidying up and generally making everyone unhappy, I took it to the village.
The village shook its communal head. You have things to tidy up? You have a choice over what to eat? You cried over silk cushions?
It was a humbling experience. I returned to my real family with a restored perspective on what really matters.
I’m surprised how trite this looks on paper but never mind; I’m very attached to my village. It reminds me, in these odd impersonal times of ours, to keep life simple. Global economics make no sense to me; village economics I can handle. When times are tight and it’s hard to put money on the communion plate, the village reminds me that hard times, like good ones, are for sharing. If this sounds very goody-two-shoes-ish, let me tell you that my special friend in the village is fit from working the fields all day, clean from swimming in rivers, and values me more than life itself (and he’s male—duh). Like I said, the simple things.
The village throws up the themes and patterns that form the warp and weft of everyday life. Daily life and village life synthesize in my imaginative life; and that’s where the stories come from.
They say that writers write because they have to and I think that’s probably true. We tell stories because that’s the way we make sense of the universe. The scale of our stories might be huge and sweeping or domestic and apparently trivial. Our stories might find one reader or thousands or none at all, but that really isn’t the point. A writer writes; that’s all.
I don’t appropriate the imaginative life for writers alone. I’m sure many (most?) people have an imaginative life whose influence pierces their everyday life in a thousand different ways. To elicit any kind of change, personal, societal, significant or completely trivial, you have to imagine that things can be different to how they are.
It’s the interpretive tools you use—or don’t use—that determine what you are. A cook interprets life through food; a painter uses paint; a scientist uses – actually I have no idea. Formulae? Chemicals?
A writer uses words.
In a very real sense, we are all the sum total of what we can imagine. It’s not quantum physics. And on that note, I leave you in the capable hands of Einstein. (See what I did there? I’m a writer, see?)
“I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein