Sunday, 9 August 2015

What is in a name?

It was a big call for me adding “artist” to the “writer and editor” job description. After all, artists are mostly consumptive impoverished types who were fooled into following their bliss, aren’t they? They usually do a good sideline in mail delivery, shelf stacking, and late-night shifts at the gas station, when not suffering from crippling depression or trying to self-mutilate. With that attitude, you could see my concern.

I’ve always called myself a “science writer”, now that’s a serious no-nonsense career, requiring exacting professionalism, a sound knowledge of science issues, and a proper leather briefcase.

To me this was what was true. But lately I’ve had a sneaking suspicion about certain things, they are:

1. As I sweep down the slope on the wrong side of middle-age it could just be that I’m mortal. My lifespan measured against any criteria (apart from a mayfly) will be regrettably short.

2. It is just possible that some of my attitudes and snobbishness, my beliefs about labels, are stopping me living a more fulfilling life.

There have been times, an increasing number truth be told, when I’ve been editing some particularly turgid document, and I’ve thought: “Is this it?” I’ve looked outside at the sunshine and wanted desperately to be in the garden, or looked at the rain, and wanted to be writing, painting or doing some tapestry.

Why was I doing what I was doing? Don’t get me wrong I love writing about science, I’ve been penning reports for over two decades and I still find stuff that interests me. But why just that? There are lots of other things that interest me as well.

I’ve had a few ups and downs in the past year, in what has been a remarkably steady 20plus-year career in New Zealand’s science industry. Some long-standing clients have left me. It was nothing personal, the Government stopped their funding – some of them are actually shutting their doors soon. Other divisions of institutions I’ve worked for have also been disbanded in the past few years or are seriously dwindling. Researchers are out on the street looking for jobs as fry cooks.

I’ve found myself unmotivated to chase the crumbs that are left. I’ve gotten out of the habit you see, as I’ve enjoyed a couple of decades of word-of-mouth referrals providing a steady income, and now, somehow, at this stage of my career, it seems a little degrading.

The uncertainty is making me re-evaluate lots of things, and I came to the somewhat discomforting conclusion that I cared about my perception of how other people saw me. You see, to be a “science writer” requires smarts. People know you’re brainy, and my perception of myself has been pretty tied up in people knowing I’m the one they need to call for quiz night. There’s a certain amount of ego gratification involved in being asked by several different groups to be on their team to answer the science questions (hint: there’s always a periodic table one).

If I was say, a “needlepoint designer”, or just an ordinary “writer”, people might think it wasn’t a serious career. Not only would those labels not tell people how “smart” I am, but they are for the most part pretend careers – frivolities that some people indulged in as a hobby or for pin money, while their rich husbands brought home the bacon. The quiz team requests might dry up.

But given the mortality suspicion it might be time I got over myself – checked my attitude – maybe I’ve been shutting down possibilities and limiting myself. Stagnating.

It’s time for a little reinvention. I started earlier this year when a science writing colleague/friend got me a writing gig that didn’t have anything to do with science. Okay, that’s alright, I’ve got to pay the bills. The magazine involved has asked me for some more stuff. Yeah, that’s good, I like their magazine and I like them. The same friend has also just finished writing and publishing a book after spending a year river boating around France, I confess to being slightly green with envy. He’s got his life together while I’ve been floundering – and I don’t mean fishing for flat fish.

I’m a needlepoint enthusiast. When I can get away with it, I’ll get out a basket of wool or graph paper and coloured pencils and muck around making patterns. I’ve never considered trying to make a quid out of it, but last month I decided to take the plunge and sent off one of my designs to five different craft magazines. Two never replied, one said “The editorial team reviewed submitted designs today and we unfortunately came to the conclusion that we cannot use your design at this time, though it is lovely. Thank you again for your submission. Hopefully our needs will line up better in the future.”, which is a kind of nice rejection, but then shockingly, two said yes, they like it. I went with the one that said: “We’re really excited about featuring your project in the magazine!” (exclamation mark their own – I usually avoid them on the basis that nobody wants me yelling or shrieking with excitement at them). What’s more in a subsequent E-mail the editor made reference to the “artists” who contribute to their magazine. Get that, I’m an “artist” contributing to their magazine – well, grab a feather duster and tickle me pink.

I’m still jealous about the book thing, so I’ve started writing my own novel – I’ll get back to you about that in about a year. I’m thinking I might turn a few of my designs into a book as well, but this is a long-term project. Anyone who has ever done any tapestry will tell you how long it takes to make a cushion. In the meantime, you can buy a tapestry pattern off me, presented as an easy-to-follow nine-page PDF booklet with an enlarged symbols chart, if you fancy getting crafty.

I’ll leave you with the wise words of Kurt Vonnegut – even though I think some of his books are pretty weird: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

#writing, #being an artist, #naming, #aging


  1. Beautifully written and very insightful. You clearly deserve the opportunity to make yourself happy.

    1. You're awesome too, Dude. Thanks for reading. Go well.