We hear about people making big life changes all the time, but how do you know when you’re having an epiphany? In my experience, most lightbulb moments have been more like the faint glow that seeps in around the blinds at dawn, until it gets so bright you can’t comfortably hang around in bed any longer.
Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect your future.”
A couple of years ago some things fell away for me. I wouldn’t say it was as dramatic as life falling apart, but it certainly felt like some sort of momentous change was occurring, and it was pretty hard to accept at the time.
I’ve often thought that if I couldn’t write I’d be a mess, but I didn’t consider that it’s reading – not writing – that fills me up the most. Exercise is one of those things that I also really need. It helps me stay sane through fairly sedentary days in front of the computer, but two years ago I found myself in a rubbish situation: unable to write, unable to train and, most painfully, unable to read.
I’ve heard that sometimes what’s going on externally mirrors what’s going on inside. Well, back then I just seemed to keep having car accidents. Several accidents in a twelve-month period, and I wasn’t sure how. I didn’t see things coming; probably because I wasn’t looking or being careful enough, and I injured myself. It wasn’t too severe at first, but I kept exercising through the pain, telling myself it was fine, until things got so bad I couldn’t do much at all.
I practically couldn’t move – not without screaming. I spent several months mostly on my back, with spasms travelling up and down my spine after tearing a disc in my neck. I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t write or hug my daughter or use a phone, and then I couldn’t read because it hurt to hold up a book, the pain travelling all the way up my neck and bringing me to tears. All the things that made life important were just beyond reach.
You’d think this would be indication enough that things had to change, but at first I just kept going, trying to do what I’d always done and work through it. Things got even worse before they got better, and they didn’t start improving until I simply gave up. Just released myself from the expectation that I would achieve anything in a day apart from getting from one end of it to the other. Thankfully my husband took up the slack and helped our household operate – I don’t know what I would have done had he not been able to.
Around that time, I started listening to podcasts. It was a way to stem the considerable boredom and made me feel like I was still learning something and taking part in the world. I’ve always loved listening to music and radio but I needed something meatier to sink my teeth into. I listened to a huge amount of podcasts – mostly TED talks and YouTube addresses and conversation hours – and then moved on to Serial and The Good Life Project and Dear Sugar Radio. Finally, I listened to a few audiobooks and marvelled at how enjoyable it was to fill up my spare moments with other people’s thoughts rather than dwelling upon the endless loop of my own which often preoccupied me.
I eventually got back to writing and finished my first novel, Precious Things, and I still kept listening to audio – almost as much as I used to read previously, because I could do it while I was doing other things, like walking and preparing dinner and tidying the house. I know I multitask too much, but it seemed more satisfying than having that nagging feeling I wasn’t getting enough reading in because life was just too busy.
Before my novel was published, my agent Jane sold the rights to turn it into an audiobook, which I previously wouldn’t have considered a possibility. And only a few months later, I saw a job advertised for an acquisitions person at an audiobook company. This is where the dots started to connect.
I started work just before Precious Things was published, which was brilliant because it meant I didn’t have time to stress about things I can’t control, such as the sales figures for my book or how it would be received. It also meant I could channel everything I’d learned from the audio I’d been listening to over the last couple of years into the books I started to acquire.
Now I spend my days reading and bidding on books I really love, which I know will make great audiobooks – especially for people who are blind or unable to read for whatever reason. But I’ve also learned that it’s not just the incapacitated who listen to a lot of audio. Did you know that it’s mostly farmers – male farmers – who download all those rural romance books which are so popular at the moment? I didn’t, but it’s true – the library figures support it. And it is truckers who will listen to pretty much anything while they’re pulling long haul journeys, bringing creativity and inspiration to what I previously considered a gruelling job.
My new position covers maternity leave, so it’s only mine until December or perhaps longer if my predecessor decides to take a full year off, but I’m enjoying it while it lasts and writing on the weekends and in the evenings. It strikes me as odd the way things have worked out – had I not listened to so much audio while I was injured, I’m not sure I would have applied, and I’m finding it really rewarding.
Which is proof that the biggest challenges have some meaning, beyond just messing with your head. That period also forced me to think more laterally about what constitutes a decent life, and the ‘proper’ way to do things. I think I may have been in a bit of a rut beforehand, but it opened up wider possibilities. All grist to the mill for novel two, methinks!