With and against

Mit und Gegen (1929), Wassily Kandinsky – with lurking freelance editor

It’s annoying when news events render perfectly serviceable blog posts irrelevant. Last week I wrote about a road trip. It was probably fifteen miles long in total, never more than about six miles from my house, and taken well after the restrictions on travelling to take exercise had been lifted in England (I believe; it’s hard to know what to think about the rules any more, even as a person used to engaging with complex texts, often for money). It wasn’t 260 miles, and I didn’t have any coronavirus symptoms at the time. Why even bother mentioning it?

Since my road trip, and as events in this corner of the world take increasingly farcical turns, I’ve been having vivid dreams set in wildly surreal landscapes. The other night I entered a Christmas tree plantation by an unofficial route, and ended up walking against a queue of people coming the other way, who’d all paid to be there and so had every right to be perusing trees. Unlike me, the interloper. I brazened it out and left by the entrance, emerging into a brilliant red canyon with steep-sided walls bathed in evening sunlight. I walked all down through it, and at the bottom came out into a city that was a bizarre yet weirdly mundane cross between Wolverhampton and Blade Runner

Last night, my dreams seemed to be about persuasion and exploitation. I needed to find a nice young man to do my son’s homework for me, because I didn’t have time to do it myself. (Yes, you might well point out that my son should have been doing it himself, but hey – I don’t write the dreams.) I did find an obliging helper, and – through speaking to him gently and imploringly – I convinced him to help me. Once he was lined up, all I needed was a particular rare secondhand map, the main features of which were to be transposed to a fresh sheet of paper to complete the task. I climbed some strange, extremely ergonomic spiral stairs to reach an antiquarian bookshop containing various old manuscripts and other curiosities, which was run by Peter Davison. He sold me the necessary map, I nearly accidentally nicked his fountain pen (slender and green, with a pattern of scales like a fish), and then he showed me something else – a peculiar contraption of coiled glass tubes somewhat like the workings of the inner ear, but as large and unwieldy as a baby chimp. Inside the glass tubes were red balls that moved around freely as you rotated the device. He handed it to me to hold, warning me on no account to lose any of the red balls. With all the crushing inevitability of a dream, of course that’s just what happened, and one of the glowing balls escaped from an open end of a tube, scampered away between the bookshelves and stacks of papers and ephemera, rolled over the precipice of the mutable staircase and disappeared from sight. I didn’t encounter it again until much later in the dream, when it emerged between the gleaming white teeth of a raucously laughing Kristin Scott Thomas with her head thrown back in hilarity, taunting me.  

There were other sub-dreams, closer to my waking up, involving cornfields and combine harvesters and angry farmers driving at groups of us to scare off his land, but the homework coercion/bookshop/red ball/KST mashup was definitely the main feature of the night. 

I don’t know what any of this means. Lee thought last night’s extravaganza might be something to do with accents, as the recognisable characters who featured in my dream could be associated with a particular type of well-spoken Englishness, and Scott Thomas was drawing specific attention to her mouth by using it to hide the errant red ball. In fact, the way both speak is just how I sound, to my ongoing chagrin. It might sometimes be of use when I’m on the phone, but given the choice I’m not sure I’d want to seem as if I’d swallowed a radio that got stuck tuned to the Today programme on Radio Four. It can make me seem so much more privileged and aloof than I really am. 

My inability to fully control the way I come across when I speak, especially in real time (perhaps the chief curse of being an introvert), is one of the reasons I cleave so hard to the written word, and has everything to do with the course of my career over the past couple of decades. This, the editorial world, is an arena in which I start as an equal, in which I have agency. When forced to communicate verbally, I’m much less assured – a fact I was reminded of this week when I had what was technically a Zoom interview for a large editorial project. I didn’t get the job, which in this case might have been for the best (a series of smaller projects dovetail as well as they can with childcare and homeschooling responsibilities), but was also a reminder that I am better on paper.   

All of this – the dreams, the way I manage to conduct my professional life – is about control. And a great deal of the anxiety we are all experiencing at the moment comes from a feeling that we have so little control. We can’t control the spread of the disease. We don’t have control over the people who govern us, seemingly with such callousness and ineptitude. Our working lives are out of control – the flow of work, our ability to work at all alongside children usually cared for and educated elsewhere. We have no idea what the next year will look like, or the next month, or the next week. 

These thoughts of control reminded me a of blog post I wrote in September 2018, which I didn’t publish at the time because it felt too personal. But I’m far enough away from all that now not to worry. And the world has moved on since, making my personal tribulations look pretty insignificant. This is what I wrote:

After my two children were born, in 2009 and 2011, I developed a fear of flying. I told myself it was because I hadn’t flown anywhere in years – partly because the thought of flying with babies made me feel too weary, and partly because money was tight. Really I knew that it was something else, though, something deeper. It was a fear of letting go, a fear of relinquishing control. Of trusting someone else with my own life and the lives of the people I loved. 

I got over the fear simply by doing it again, because sometimes it’s necessary to fly (I have family in far-flung places). In August [2018] I flew back from visiting my sister in Greece hardly caring that the engines of the plane I was on were making weird screeching noises, or that the wing I could see was flapping like a shirt on a washing line. I was on the plane in the first place for reasons somewhat outside my control – I had gone away to distance myself from a difficult situation at home. For the first time in years I properly gave in to my fate, and my heartbeat remained slow and steady as we soared above the clouds. What would happen – or not – would happen, I realised at last, and there was nothing I could do about that.

Over the course of the summer, my world as I’d known it for the past decade fell apart and my marriage ended. (We remain committed co-parents, determined to do this our way, and do it with kindness.) It was all I could manage, in the grimmest and most confusing days of the crisis, to keep up with work, but somehow I did. I had to edit more slowly than usual, more mindfully, because my brain was in such disarray that I was terrified of making a mistake. I went into safe mode, doing the work that came in but no more, because I had nothing left to give. Marketing – or whatever it is I usually do that passes for marketing – went out the window. I could barely speak up in editorial forums, a feeling that persists. What advice could I possibly give people, when I couldn’t even get my own shit together?

The hardest thing to grasp was the way I couldn’t exert control. I couldn’t change what had happened. And I wasn’t accustomed to things not going my own way – I simply couldn’t deal with it. In the last few months I have gradually learned acceptance, though, and all sorts of other things I thought I was incapable of, and I have renewed hope for the future.

As business owners, we are encouraged – and we encourage each other – to take control of every aspect of our career, and our destiny. We seek to escape a passive existence in which we wait for work to trickle in and are thankful for whatever clients will give us. We aspire to take on projects of our own choosing, turn excess work away, and set our own terms. This is a good thing, but it’s also a huge source of pressure. The untidy truth about life is that you can’t always determine your own fate, and to expect to be able to do so all the time can lead to disappointment and feelings of inadequacy.

As a freelance editor, I’ve long thought that there’s a lot to be said for being flexible. It’s about learning to work with different clients and their particular preferences and needs, and all the give and take that entails. It’s about trying to fill the time, yet being relaxed when schedules don’t run to plan (which is almost always to be expected). It’s a whole lot easier if you can make it about going with, not fighting against.

Now I’m having to apply this attitude to other areas of my life. I’ve come through the darkness and my head is clearer. I have hope, and have rediscovered laughing. Despite the benign neglect of my business over the summer, I have a busy few months ahead with work – marketing really is a slow burn, and continues to give long after the initial effort. I’ve reconnected with friends, in person as well as online. Without them, I’m not sure I’d have managed to get here in one piece. I’ve learned that sharing my own problems helps others feel able to talk about theirs. I even gave a sort-of uplifting lightning talk at the SfEP [now the CIEP] conference a few weeks ago; the conference was brilliant as always – just what I needed. Above all, from now on I’m reaffirming my intention to be more accepting of what comes, acquiesce and let go, rather than trying to engineer every last detail.

I feel similarly now, but less passive. Yes, there is a need to live with a degree of acquiescence. To exclude that entirely is to risk burning out. There is an urge to embrace absurdity and dark grey humour, if only to stay sane. To retreat into a world of weird dreams and childlike indulgences. But there’s also a burning need to stay alert, and not in the obfuscating, blame-shifting sense the UK government means. To cling to the letter, and the word. To record, to not forget; to track, to trace. To not be wearied into acceptance. 

It is not just the adults who are anxious. My beautiful ten-year-old wakes in the night shaking with anxiety, because she misses school so much. She has even less control over things than I do, and it hurts. 

Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and freelance since 2008. In real life, she doesn’t do all of her son’s homework.

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