Derren Brown did a really neat trick once. Well, he’s done lots of neat tricks, but this one really stuck with me.
He told a room full of people that he’d prepared an in-depth astrological reading for them. They each received their reading in a sealed envelope and weren’t allowed to discuss the contents with each other. The camera showed people’s reactions when they’d finished reading: they were almost uniformly bowled over by the accuracy of what they’d read. People were shocked and moved. One woman was in tears, sobbing that no-one had ever understood her that well in her whole life.
Then they exchanged envelopes with each other. You can probably guess what’s coming. Yes, the text of each of the readings – over an A4 side of closely typed prose – was exactly the same. As someone aptly put it in a blog comment recently, it’s tough to be a student of oneself.
Today marks seven weeks into my six-month period of unpaid leave, and I’m in a reflective mood.
When I left the office that last Friday, I wasn’t sure what I’d miss or how much I’d miss it. I wasn’t sure how I’d fill the days when I wasn’t back in Wales helping out my dad (or nagging him, as I’m sure he’d put it). I wasn’t sure what it would feel like to try and spend whole days writing, treating it like a job because to do anything else when my husband is supporting me to have this time away feels unforgivably selfish. I wasn’t sure how much of my identity was bound up in being a civil servant, and how much I wanted it to be. (I realise many, if not most, of you are at this point shouting. “WHAT?! Astronaut, brain surgeon, teacher, yes – but who in their right mind would want to define themselves as a civil servant?!” I have no excuse.)
It turns out that seven weeks isn’t long enough to come up with the answers. I have learned a few things though.
I’ve learned that I can keep disciplined while I have a daily word count to work towards…
…and really struggle when I don’t.
I’ve learned that editing isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.
I’ve learned that when the sun isn’t shining it’s far too easy to spend a lot of time cooped up indoors. And even with the world’s cutest pussycats (oh yes they are) that’s not a good thing.
To my astonishment, I’ve learned that I’m actually not all that bothered about politics. (A former colleague has, though, told me that he experienced the same thing when he left the civil service, and it turned out to be temporary. We shall see; for the moment I’m quite enjoying being a bit less angry.)
And perhaps I’m starting to learn that, when it comes down to it, I don’t need to be defined by how I spend my days. Perhaps I should stop worrying about whether, for this period of time, I call myself a civil servant or a writer.
Perhaps I should just try to be me.
Now all I need is that astrology chart and I’ll know just who that is.