When I moved into my first flat twenty years ago, a very nice lady who lived upstairs (I think she may have been the one playing all those hawaiian guitar albums really loudly, but I’m not sure) asked me what I did. I told her, ‘I work up at Heathcote and Ivory, you know, the pot pourri factory on Alverdiscott Road?’ And then she said something that has stuck with me ever since. She said, ‘I don’t mean where do you work dear, I mean what do you do? What do you get up for in the morning?’ or something similar, I am paraphrasing, it was a long time ago. I was quite taken aback, and told her that I was a musician, I may even have claimed to be a writer, I was a pretentious twat at eighteen, but then who isn’t? I have since realised she may have just been trying to find out who the noisy git with the electric guitar was, but she seemed genuinely delighted to know that I was not just a factory worker.
At the time I was constantly saying that I had to do something worthwhile with my life. I’m not sure I even know what that means now, and a girl I was seeing at the time asked me one very important question. Why? She had a point, define worthwhile, to my pets, wife and stepkids I am very much worthwhile whatever else I am doing (I am a God to Rizla and the Cats, the big hand with the food). To people I hold doors open for, and smile and say good morning too I surely make a difference. Even to those who say they can set their watch by me walking past their house every morning I have worth. But when you’re eighteen worthwhile has more weight, expectations are set much too high, at least mine were, probably to justify some of the decisions I made. If you are happy, and enjoying what you are doing, even if it is just watching funny cat videos every spare minute you have, then that is worthwhile.
Ever since then I have steadfastly refused to define myself by my job. Or even bother asking other people what they do for a living. If they want you to know, they will tell you (and how). Full disclosure, I run a print department for a living, this sounds more impressive than it is. There’s just me, and a room full of printers and computers that occasionally work. If I need a holiday, the company’s technical director comes in and runs it for me, and when it is busy, he comes in to help out and is my bitch. He’s also my boss, which makes for some wonderful tension, but after two months of me swearing at him over the Christmas rush, he gives me a bonus, and usually buys me something nice as well, so he must enjoy it really.
Like a lot of people, I do not really love my job, I do it so that I can afford to live, and I kind of fell into it by accident. Occasionally I get caught up in it, as when it does get busy and I am trying to make sure that every one of the 12 printers in my print room is doing something it is a little like conducting an orchestra, and I very nearly enjoy the sensation of doing something well. I have been known to wave my arms at them like a conductor, which alongside my constant muttering to myself and occasional sweary outbursts at inanimate objects makes me look completely insane. This may explain why I am mostly left alone in my little domain.
The company produces novelty jigsaws, coasters, placemats and suchlike, which is exactly the sort of thing I have always set myself against, we are producing tat for the overpaid to buy and give to people who will probably never even look at them (if my boss is reading this, I am sorry, but you knew all this when you hired me, the anti-capitalism never bothered you before). It is easy to get caught up in it, and believe that it is important. Without it I would not be able to keep my home, so in that sense it is (ethics are ethics, but you do need to eat) though when someone is screaming across the office that there is an urgent jigsaw, I still find it hard to stifle a laugh at the very concept of a jigsaw being urgent. It is certainly not a calling, but it is the job I have hated least of all the jobs I have ever had.
Far too many people are guilty of calling themselves musicians or writers these days, and very few of those who claim those titles in their twitter bios make any kind of living from it. This only came to my attention while reading Dan Brown’s Inferno (you won’t tell anyone I read Dan Brown books will you? Thanks) when Robert Langdon is surprised all the hands that go up when he asks if there are any writers in the room, and blames amazon kindle direct publishing. If you don’t get paid for it, it is a hobby, not a job. By the way, in case you haven’t seen it before, my twitter bio quite specifically describes me as a not-quite-writer and almost-musician. An important disclaimer I hope.
But then I started this by saying that you are not your job didn’t I? So if you play music and you write stuff, and that is what you do, whether it pays or not, you can certainly call yourself what you like. No matter how elitist Dan Brown wants to be about it, it is not a closed world anymore, and anyone can write and publish a book if they want. Doesn’t mean that it will be any good though, at least traditional publishing filters out all the crap, saving the consumer a great deal of time.
I am writing this on the eve of my 38th birthday, which has put me in the mood to reflect that if I had done things differently, I could maybe be one of those people who have a career, rather than a series of jobs that they fell into. I always assumed my Dad had been the career type, as he has had a very successful career. But in a recent conversation with him I discovered that he only fell into accountancy because he didn’t get into University to do History like he wanted to. This may explain why my parents got so annoyed with me for not taking up my offered University place back in the 90s when it was all still free, sorry Dad.
I hadn’t realised how much my conviction that your job does not define you had taken hold until my very favourite editor pointed out to me that very few of my characters mentioned their jobs. Didn’t occur to me that anybody would be interested in what fictional people did for a living, as I felt their character would be defined enough by their actions and words. I think I was probably naïve and wrong in hoping for this, as my favourite editor is generally right, and knows an awful lot more about what makes a decent story than I do.
All this is not to disparage the many people happy to be defined by their job, I know teachers, doctors, lawyers, postmen, lorry drivers, mechanics and waitresses who fall on either side of my fence. There will always be some who work to live, and others who genuinely live to work. There will be those who enthuse and say that you must have a thing, a raison d’etre, some force that drives you to do stuff, but they are wrong too. If all you are driven to do is sit in front of the telly drinking tea, then good for you, do what makes you happy as life is fleeting. Most days I am only really driven to sit in the garden with a good book and a bottle of cider. If you keep working yourself into the ground for a better tomorrow that never comes then you did something wrong.
You are not your job, unless you want to be.