It’s been quite an unusual four months for me, after volunteering to return to the workplace. By that I don’t mean my writing desk, but rather the kind of workplace where it was essential to be showered, dressed, and out of the house by 8 A.M. For a full time writer used to managing her own time, that level of social commitment was quite a stretch. Yet is was an easy decision to return to work, one I took in order to help my husband, because we/he runs our/his business, a medical practice which we started together eight years ago, and the place from where I wrote all my books save the most recent. Its success is not only important to our family, but important to me. So, when faced with the knowledge that he needed a receptionist at what was going to be a very busy time, and that I was writing a first draft with no particular pressure of a deadline, going back to work was not only a no-brainer, it was the right thing to do.
Sometimes doing the right thing is hard.
The position was the same as I’d fulfilled before, only back then I was also working clinically as a cardiac physiologist. I suggested this time that I'd go back to work solely as a receptionist. My reasons were twofold. In the first instance, I wasn’t sure how effective I’d be clinically, after being out of practice for two years. Could I still perform an ultrasound with the same skill, or program a pacemaker without causing a fatal error? But secondly, and in the interest of full disclosure, I decided that if I was still good at my old job, I didn’t want to become too useful. I didn’t want to make it so I couldn’t retreat to the writing cave when I needed to. Just enough help to keep things running well, but not so much that he couldn’t do it without me. I thought that was the easier option.
How wrong could I have been?
While I was working in the NHS, I relied on having a receptionist. A decent one ensured that my list of patients ran on time, and that I got lunch. Karen, Anita, Debbie; I salute you. And now there I was, trying to keep things running for other people in what had become a very busy clinic. It turns out, I wasn’t all that bad, most of the time. I just about held things together. But let’s be clear. Writing books in comparison is easy. Yes, there’s a lot to do, and a lot of responsibility, but it boils to down this; to write a book, I get the grand total of a whole year, and quite a bit of help. Agents, editors, copy editors. Multiples of each. If you give me one year, with one job to do, I can write you a decent book. Working on reception however, means that I was being pulled in five different directions in as many minutes. I was on the front line, and fuck, it was hard.
Working two jobs is tough. The afternoon, my new writing time, suddenly became way less productive. It didn’t take long before the ability to write anything half decent began to feel agonisingly elusive. Writing isn’t a stable job, and income is often low and unpredictable. It had been a year since I had fulfilled my last contract, and there I was writing not very much, in a new genre without an editor. Writing is the best job in the world for me, but I wasn’t coming up with anything consistent, couldn’t narrow down that one idea. My mind was distracted, and not just by reception and medical stuff, but by my apparent failings as a writer; the last book that I had written which hadn’t yet sold. What an albatross that began to feel like, even though I was really happy with it when I had finished it. Was my temporary foray back into the working world just a run up to jumping back in full time? I was starting to wonder whether it might be.
And then I got the email that all writers are waiting for. My latest book had sold. First in the UK, then Italy. Germany, North America, and Greece, all followed. My fears, as real as they were, turned out to be unfounded. I was a contracted writer again. I knew I would need to get back to writing full time as soon as possible and we started planning my departure from the workplace for a second time. But I found that it wasn’t as easy to step back as I thought it would be. I liked being back, having co-workers, seeing patients. It was nice when people asked me to give an opinion on something clinical, and I found that I could actually remember diagnoses and cardiac dimensions. It seems that reference ranges will be forever imprinted on my brain.
So, after four months visiting a version of my old life, I am now back at my desk, working for myself. Today, I haven’t brushed my hair, and at least fifty percent of my clothes function part time as pyjamas. Does it feel good? Yes, and perhaps a little unreal. I once thought that writing a book, selling it once, was all that I would need to do in order to have a long career working as a writer. Now I realise that’s not the case. I know it’s possible not to have contracts renewed, to write books and have them not sell. But I also know it’s possible to step back into my old job, and do it reasonably well, which makes stepping away from it somehow sweeter still. Because I have been reminded that writing is where my heart lies. I know how it felt to be writing out of contract, not knowing whether I would sell another book to a publishing house, wondering whether my one chance had come and gone. Yet, despite the long road to get here, and the ups and down along the way, later this year my next book will be published. Perhaps in hindsight, it’s not returning to work in our office that is unusual. Instead, the fact that I’m working again as a full-time writer is the most unusual, precious thing of all.