Today's post is the paper that I delivered at Wildfire Women this month in Brighton. Wildfire Women was a conference for creatives and businesswomen who were sharing their experiences, knowledge and passions with each other. I was on a panel about balance and talked about making space for my passions outside of the day job.
By Day and By Night: Finding Space for Creativity Part-Time
I want to talk today about the importance of making space in your life to be creative - whatever form that takes, and especially when you can't do it full-time. I’m so proud of the people and the women in my life that have left jobs and taken that plunge to work for themselves and follow their dreams, but for many people that’s not always possible. Whether that’s due to finances or familial responsibilities, sometimes we have to make space for passions outside of work. And so we find ourselves chasing after that ever elusive work-life balance.
But I’d argue that no matter what you do to make a living, making space for creativity in your life is absolutely vital. And growing up I was lucky in that that was never an issue for me. I played musical instruments, inhaled every book I could get my hands on and was a die-hard member of the creative writing club at school. Yes, I was a true nerd
And University was much of the same – plenty of outlets for an overly enthused literature student to get her creativity fix.
And then I came to real life. I’d applied to do a PhD after my Masters in Shakespeare, but wasn’t able to get any funding and so reluctantly turned instead to teaching.
In hindsight, it probably wasn't the best move for an introvert with conflict issues to take a job teaching teenagers in an infamous school in South London, where flying chairs and even swifter insults were part of the day to day life.
And I can laugh about it now, but it wasn’t exactly the greatest of times. In fact, it’s probably the darkest time in my life. The pace was so fast, the pressure utterly insurmountable and the work so all-consuming that I found myself drowning in piles of marking that never seemed to ever lessen. I started having panic attacks regularly, sometimes up to five or six times a day, and I lost myself. And when everything became too much, and the stress from work increased, my creativity was the first thing to go.
I stopped writing. Stopped playing music. Stopped doing all the creative things that had helped define me in my life up until that point.
Lots of the speakers yesterday talked about authenticity and being your authentic self, and at that I just couldn’t. I didn’t have the time or the head space to do anything outside of the large black cloud that teaching had pulled above my head. It was as if my job had siphoned every ounce of creativity from my body.
After about a year and a half of living through hell, it took a particularly terrible lesson observation, an appointment with my incredibly supportive doctor, and a few weeks off sick, but I quit my job on Valentine’s Day 2013 – what I refer to now as the ultimate Valentine’s Day present to myself. I didn’t quit my job to follow my dreams or to start a business; I did it to save my sanity. And it took me about a month, but I got another job. Nothing particularly exciting, just working within admin in a school; but the people were lovely, the work was interesting but the sort of thing that I could leave at work, and all of a sudden I found myself finishing at four.
I had time and I had energy that I hadn’t had for years. And I had nothing to fill it with…
So slowly, and ever so tentatively because it was scary to start again, I started writing. I set up a blog, a new Twitter account and decided to write about my everyday life, just in an effort to get something down on paper. And it was fun. Getting words – any words out there – was so cathartic and I’d forgotten how much I loved it.
This also meant writing about romance novels. I’d always loved reading them – a guilty pleasure, if you will - and one night, whilst at the Edinburgh festival, I managed to persuade a couple of my – very drunk – male friends to pose with Mills & Boon novels. The results were hilarious and I included them in some reviews.
I don’t think I could have ever imagined what would happen next.
First, the writers of the books started reaching out to me. Reading my reviews, arguing over whose Mills & Boon boy was the funniest, and going back reading my posts about finding bras that fit when you’ve got a ridiculously sized chest, and how to sneak romance novels on your boyfriends’ bookshelf when it’s primarily colonized by football biographies and thrillers. They commented and included me in conversations, and sent me books to read that they thought I’d like.
Somehow, I’d found myself a community.
I had editors and marketing execs at Mills & Boon reach out to me, and I ended up writing guest posts on the publisher’s official website, and being involved in the launch of a new imprint. Someone I’d gone to uni with reached out asked me if I’d like to write a piece on Marian Keyes for a literary webzine that she wrote for, and I ended up becoming their resident expert on romance and chick lit.
And I’m not entirely certain if I ever made the conscious decision to say yes to all the opportunities that came my way, but I definitely what I ended up doing. My love for this genre, and what I wrote about it was a new creative outlet for me. It wasn’t something particularly serious, and I certainly didn’t get paid for it, but I did it for the sheer love of writing about the genre.
I became an editor of a well-established romance publishing webzine where all the columnists are published romance authors and industry professionals, and I even started dipping my toes back into the academic pool – giving papers at conferences about the social engagement and the romance novel; about a romance series set in a women’s domestic violence shelter, where everyone gets the happy ever after that they deserve; and about this entire branch of the publishing industry, dominated by women at every level, that is continually dismissed out of hand, women’s voices and narratives being dismissed out of hand, because they are seen as less.
Though if you’d asked me if wanted to study again, I’d have said that I’d been out of academia for far too long to ever go back, that I couldn’t afford to do a PhD, that I didn’t want to not get paid for three years.
And throughout it all I had a number of different jobs – administrative and then data analyst roles within education. They were challenging, but never quite my passion the way this research was. I worked to pay the bills, to stretch me in different ways, and to allow me to do what I truly loved outside of work.
It hasn’t always been easy. Balancing the creative side of life with work can be damn difficult – especially when you’ve deadlines to meet in both parts, but it’s invariably rewarding. And when you have a tribe of women at your side, who love you, who support you and who act as cheerleaders for you when you need them to, you can get though anything.
So here I stand here, 7 years after I had to turn away from study and start teaching, and just this Wednesday my PhD proposal was formally accepted by the University of Brighton. It's part thesis and part creative writing, and I'm going to be as far from Shakespeare as possible - looking at introverted heroines in Mills & Boon novels as feminist figures! I’m going to be studying part-time and my research will meld the academic and the creative sides of myself in an attempt to embrace all of me.
I would never have imagined that the hobby I took up as a creative outlet, as a way of keeping me sane after the worst episode in my life, would set me on what seems to be developing into a career path. It’s going to take six long long years, but at the end of it, I may actually be in a position to do what I really love full-time.
So I suppose what I’m saying is really this: don’t feel less than, just because right now you can’t follow your dreams full-time. I’m not saying settle for a job that makes you miserable, but sometimes that’s not your path at this moment. Build time into your life for creativity, make time in your life for creativity – whatever form that takes for you – and just go with it. If you invest enough time and energy into your passions, you may just find yourself starting down a road with your dreams waiting for you at the end.
Photography by Laura Morgan Photography
How do you find space for your passions in your everyday life? Share your experiences and projects with me in the comments!