Progress without exams; no appraisals; no grade progression & a short story taking up too much time

Something came to mind yesterday, as I was wasting time checking and rechecking I had enough beer for the world cup final. Even though I am now six months, more even, out of formal work (I have my own company of course and fully include writing as work! but I just mean a traditional 9-5 role) I have kept up, for the most part, a fairly traditional day routine. I don’t get the train into town anymore but I’m still up early-ish and stick to a standard working day structure. I could have fallen into a variety of different routines, most of which would have been disastrous for any useful productivity…but a lot of fun…but I haven’t and the thing that struck me was that although my day schedule is the same, the way I plan my year is entirely different from before.
I spent the last nine years working in an educational environment, specifically an art and design university. It meant working to a very structured (no laughing please) year plan. What’s more I worked in the department that was responsible for managing the estates use of space and course and resource timetabling (again, no laughing please).
            I’m not going to go into the role in detail here, that is behind me now and I’ve no desire to think about it but the reason I tell you is that the nature of my job instilled in me (or did I already have it which is why I was in that job) a very disciplined idea of structuring time. I would know dozens of different term dates, exam dates, building opening times, tutor teaching days, open days, student exhibition dates (install, opening and takedown), I would know individual course timetables, workshop and resource opening times, travelling times between sites, I would know dozens of meeting calendars, project board meetings, university holiday dates, library opening times, gallery opening times and exhibition dates, I would know when staff took their holiday, what resources were used and when by pretty much everyone…the point is, my diary used to be crammed full of dates that I needed to know in order to plan properly. Most of those would be one or two years in advance, some three or four.
            As of today, the only dates I have in my diary are my friends and families birthdays and alas now the world cup is finished not even the football schedule! My to-do list never encroaches into the week after the one I’m in.
            Okay, so I can on one hand gloat and say how free I am and how all of that pressure and complex planning has disappeared from my life but the truth is that I enjoyed it and what’s more, it was important to my progression.
            What has this got to do with writing I hear your tired brain crying. Well, I didn’t mention it above but there is another series of events that would be in the diary and this will be recognized by anyone who has worked in an organization that has even the most limited of management structures. The annual appraisal.
            I’ll talk another time about how I structure my day now that I am in charge of my own timetable, for today I’m going to stick to the disappearance in my life of that yearly milestone where you tell your boss how fantastic you have been and that you deserve a huge pay rise and a massive expenses account…shortly followed by walking out the door having accepted a two year pay freeze and being transferred to head office to squeeze into an overcrowded open plan office next to the people you have only ever emailed and never met in person but just know you are going to hate.

Allow me one brief moment of gloating…this was my office today

Whether it is called Year Review, Personal Appraisal, Development Review, Year End Interview or whatever, there are a million names for it, it is when you sit down with your manager and discuss how the year has gone. You may be in an organization that has a fifty page document full of checklists and ‘Your Comments’ sections and so on, or you may be in a place that simply goes to the local pub for a sit down chat. You may be in a place where the appraisal is aligned to your salary, a good year you get a raise, a bad year and you don’t. You may be in a place that sets you lots of targets so that you must go on three training courses, two research trips and collect at least ten chocolate eggs at the company Easter egg hunt in order to qualify for the recommended for a raise signature.
          I don’t know what you think of them, I’m sure a large proportion hates them and think they are condescending wastes of time. I’m sure there are those who really value the opportunity to sit down with your boss and speak openly and honestly. In my case, I actually didn’t mind them. I saw value in having the opportunity to speak my mind, ask for things (I was one of those annoying people who actually wanted to go on training courses) and discuss the ideas I had for the future.
The point is I don’t have them anymore.  So how do I gauge my progress now!

  • How do I know I am doing good job if I don’t get a pat on the back from a boss? How do I know I am being successful if I don’t get a raise?
  • How do I know I am doing the right thing if no one is there to tell me I am?
  • How do I know what skills I need to develop?
  • How do I know if I am learning all the right things?
  • How do I know…well…anything, if I don’t have someone more important than me and who is paid more than me and is older than me telling me what to do?

Well being self employed certainly puts this into perspective and for the sake of this blog I’m going to call writing being self employed, let’s just put all the possible ways you work under this for now.
            Also, sorry to sound so blasé but let’s also forget about the company accounts and self assessment stuff (I’m kneeling and doffing my cap to the HMRC as I type), of course that is vitally important but I’ll blog about that another time, business and financial matters.
            What I am talking about here is suddenly being on your own with no one to direct you. I have to set my own targets and that is not as easy as it sounds. There are so many wonderful people that offer free advice on their websites and blogs about how to ‘be a writer’ and it covers everything you can possibly think of yet it is still just you, sitting in front of your computer/laptop/pad of paper/typewriter (I still like to think) that has to push themselves to make that advice a reality. There are no longer organizational parameters you have to work to and as liberating as it is, there are reasons why successful companies have them.
            I have drafted a few versions of a business plan and there is a lot I am looking forward to achieving yet the core business of writing is much harder to put into a diary than I ever expected. I know I am sort of on holiday too so that isn’t the best state of mind to start cracking the whip but I have no doubts at all that I need to take writing more seriously than I have ever taken anything in my life. I am going to have to take all of the skills I have developed in my working life and apply them to create a structured and demanding schedule. I cannot afford to flit from day to day, week to week and month to month without any sort of plan or target. That is the easiest way to suddenly say hello to birthdays I never saw coming. I will turn thirty five years of age this November, if I am blowing out the candles on my fortieth without any significant progress made then I will only have myself to blame and it will be because I never set myself targets and treated writing like a business. It is no good saying, ‘the novel is coming along’ or ‘I am working on new ideas’…and so on.
            I need a formal structure and that includes being disciplined with my writing time. I need to know exact dates when I am filming interviews for my YouTube channel. I need to know exact dates and times of everything! I am not in an organization where this is all provided anymore. I can’t rely on anyone else. There are no markers and milestones other than what I set so I had better bloody well get on with setting them as otherwise years will disappear and I will still be talking about how great it is to have freedom and be my own boss yet never finish a bloody story or earn a bloody penny!
            I have talked enough for now, this was just a general feeling I wanted to share with you of comprehending the impact of being disjointed from the workplace and some of the more formal structures that are no longer there for me to use. What I will do is come back to this subject next year, when I am back in the UK and working full time on writing (man, that sounds so fantastic on one hand, yet I’m going to miss this weather and lifestyle! It’s going to be damn tough!) and share with you my timetable, my week, month and year planner, my objectives, my aims, my targets and see what you think. After all, I want to be a writer yes, but I also want my business to succeed, I also want to improve as a businessman and grow the company so it will be interesting to hear your thoughts on that. So please stay in touch with me on this one.

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Spanish Update

Learning Spanish is still taking its toll out on me. It’s a slow process no denying that. I have accepted now it will be many years before I get to a basic conversational level. Talking in stuttered three or four word present tense rhetorical questions is one thing. Having a natter as we say in the UK is another. It’s great though, having such a big task ahead of you and thinking…one day…
I won’t mention names for the sake of privacy but I was very kindly invited to a birthday party this week. I went along only knowing one person and I was seated in between a dozen people all heartily debating the world cup and so on. That’s when you realise how far away you are because I struggled to understand a bloomin’ word. I could get snippets here and there but of course once I had digested a few words the conversation had moved on and I had not an idea how to connect the words into sentences and understand the gist of what the overall meaning was. However, it was a fantastic time, great food and great company and every time you are in a situation like that I am sure you learn more than you realise at the time.
I am still in awe of people who have mastered two or more languages. Just the thought of trying to write in another language as well as I know English seems impossible to me right now. Some very famous writers achieved their best work writing in their second tongue, wow, simply wow.

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Writing Update

I’ve spent a long time, at least two weeks, working on a short story and it has been a very frustrating process. You see it started off as a very short piece connected to a real event in my life, the storm in the UK (and elsewhere) in 1987. However, the reason it has been frustrating is that the original concept I had has now changed and turned into something entirely different. This is frustrating not because I don’t like what has happened, I’m very happy about that, it’s because I haven’t done any writing!
That’s what happens sometimes and you can’t get too upset about it. Par for the course as they say, ideas change and develop, that’s what it is all about however the pain is that it feels like two weeks wasted because hardly any words have been put down on paper, when you look back at so much time spent on something yet no actual physical work to show for it, it can be a bit depressing. Deep down however you know it’s for the best. It has been a very valuable process and I’ve learnt a lot from it. Developing an idea can be exhausting and more than a bit masochistic, constantly beating yourself up over and over to get something right…and knowing each time that it is still not right! Yes, a bit further in the right direction but…
It also shows that you are taking it seriously, because to take that extra time and that extra care shows you are dedicated. I know I won’t use a fraction of the research I have undertaken, I won’t use hardly any of the character profiles I have worked on, I won’t use probably 70% of the work I have done over these last two weeks, but I’m okay with that. I know that the story will be better because of it.
The biggest disappointment is knowing that in your head an idea is getting better and better and really developing into something you think is great but knowing you’re not good enough to express the idea. You know you won’t quite do it justice. Yet again, that is okay, you have to live with that, you have to believe that one day you will get better and that in the long run these disappointments were all building towards something. So it does in one sense feel like a total waste of time because all of that work won’t translate into a product that truly represents the intention.  Yet I have to do it in order to get better  – there is no shortcut – THAT is why it is a frustrating process.
There is one further reason why this particular story has been hard work. It is because it has a real life event in it. It has been fascinating for me to research into something I barely remember (I was 8 or 9 years old when the storm occurred) but do have concrete specific memories for certain parts. To talk to people who were there, to read about the consequences I can only understand now as an adult and so on. I know I keep saying this but I think this warrants another blog, I’ll talk about this again soon. 
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Take care everyone,


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