In this series of guest posts, I have asked a number of writers and editors to share the price they pay for pursuing their creative passion or what they sacrifice–whether that is money, time or lost opportunities. It might be how they pay the bills that writing doesn’t, or how they juggle working for a living or raising a family with the time it takes to write or edit. The people who have contributed have shared their personal stories in the hope it might help those new to the scene manage their expectations, or help others dealing with similar things realise they aren’t alone. You can read about the inspiration for this series here, and if you want to be part of it please let me know.
Today I’m excited to welcome Gillian Polack, someone who wears many hats, ranging from historian to distributor of fine chocolates. A writer and editor of renown, Gillian has written novels and put together anthologies—and provided some great resources for authors looking to get their writing right. Check out her website for more.
For someone who tells stories, I’m having a remarkably hard time telling this one about myself. I think it’s because I’m one of those people who integrate unusual things. I bring opposites together and turn them into a life or into a story.
When I left the public service I was sent to a career guidance counsellor. She told me I’d never be happy, because I was very unusual. “You need, emotionally, types of work that cannot possibly be combined in any career on my books” she explained, after all the tests. “You need to do very high level analytical thinking, like a scientist; you need to be creative; and you need to be in a customer service industry. Teaching would work for a while,” she suggested, “So would architecture.” Then she said “They wouldn’t work for long. I think the best fit for you would be a receptionist. At least you’d get the people side of things that way. And you’re very organised and very understanding of others. You’d make a good receptionist.”
I don’t know how many women with PhDs who were made redundant from middle management positions she advised to consider finding jobs as receptionists, but I wasn’t that pleased at the suggestion. I had explained to her that I wanted to write, but she couldn’t see how this or my earlier career would be useful in determining my future.
I sought a second opinion. The second opinion quite agreed that, on the books, I was an impossibility. I was someone who didn’t fit any of the nice neat diagrams, who didn’t even quite fit classifications like Myers-Briggs. What the second expert said, however was that my mind was a bit unusual and that if anyone could find a new path that suited talents so far away from each other that they couldn’t logically exist in the same body, it would be me: I should trust myself for my future.
I did teacher training to give myself time to think about all this, and I started being published again. I was going to write no matter what, and a publisher ppersuaded me to change my mind about the publishing side (which is a different story and I’ve told it elsewhere), but so few fiction writers make a living from their work that I assumed (correctly) that I’d need to do more than just write and publish. I also decided that I’d make a lousy receptionist.
That’s how I got to where I am now. When I write and teach and do my academic research and do just enough administration, all those strange and different parts of myself come together. But they still don’t fit the models of ordinary life that other people have in their minds.
There is good and there is bad in this.
The good is that I get published and that I am doing what I love when I write and when I edit. I get to teach and to mentor and to work with other writers so that they can be where they need to be, which is important to me (the service side of my personality). Also, I must admit that I enjoy meeting readers and giving library talks and throwing chocolate at audiences. And resarch makes me joyous in a very special way. I love the ground-breaking, the life-changing, the intellectual rollercoaster of changing our culturescape through my research.
The bad is that I’m not entrepreneurial and I’m very much not ‘cool’—my fiction and I both tried to fit into the neat categories most people need, and we both failed at that. I integrate the apparently-impossible almost instinctively, but I have trouble writing a book that doesn’t gently challenge the possible. I fly under the radar a lot, which has instant bad results for sales and public awareness of my existence. “Are you thinking of getting published?” people will ask me at cons, while looking at my name tag, with a booklaunch of my new book on the programme they’ve just been staring it.
Quite simply, I don’t look or act the way strangers expect, just as I didn’t look the way those career experts expected. That’s a price to pay for writing what I write: no-one sees my writing in me, for they don’t see the whole of me. I’m not easy to interpret, apparently.
This means I’ve sacrificed security to write, but most of us do that. It’s the part of the standard price of writing fiction. It also means I’ve given up on two careers because they didn’t work with all of me. There was the pure history road (I need my fiction as well as my history) and there’s the public service path (I was on a the way to policy glory and it got in the way of my writing ie it was either become senior or get out).
I’ve also lost relationships. Not just friends (friends shift and change over lives), but the sort of long term partner so many people take for granted. Anyone who wants a relationship has to deal with the fact that I live in my mind a lot of the time and that my mind does some very strange things. That I can be scatty beyond belief and passionate beyond logic, or I can be a relaxed soul who plays silly games with children. ‘Integration’ sounds great and produces books and makes a very handy teacher and purveyor of bad jokes, but it’s also intense and quite hard to live with on an everyday basis.
So, by being a writer, I’ve become all the selves that the careers experts said I had within me but would be unable to express. One of them actually said “You’re probably doomed to unhappiness.” Fortunately for me, she was wrong. I’m probably doomed to a fair amount of poverty and ill-health and to stress about the small things of life and to not take holidays and to yearn wistfully after spending money on luxuries like DVDs or a dinner out. I’m doomed, too, to spend large chunks of my life alone, talking to invisible people. I’m doomed to writing stories about those invisible friends, and to discover fabulous things about how cultures operate and writers work and to test them out using novels as a springboard. And I’m doomed to lovely letters from readers and to have random people say accusingly “I read your book. I was supposed to be sleeping. Don’t do it again.” There are worse dooms. Boredom is a doom I don’t suffer from. Nor do I suffer from the doom of being forced to be someone I’m not.
To be honest, the price I pay for writing is high and the sacrifices are significant, but, honestly, the price would be higher and the sacrifices nearly impossible if I weren’t writing. I know this because I’ve tried that route. I don’t want to have to go there again.
Gillian Polack is a writer, editor, historian and researcher. Gillian’s most recent novel is The Art of Effective Dreaming (which once was cursed and now is merely strange) and before that was her time travel novel, Langue[dot]doc 1305 (Satalyte). Her next book is The Middle Ages Unlocked (published by Amberley, in the UK https://www.amberley-books.