I’m a workaholic and, ironically, I’m trying my hardest to work on that. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions around workaholicism and what it entails, and to people unfamiliar with it, it maybe conjures up very corporate imagery – Robin Williams in the first act of Hook, maybe, someone constantly walking down corridors in sterile office environments talking sternly to subordinates, prioritising business phone calls that they simply must take. It’s a word that suggests power suits and office cubicles and meeting rooms, maybe. That’s not really what my experience of it is. A lot of my work life is spent, essentially, idle, because of the nature of my work. I think this is true of a lot of freelancers in the creative industries. You spend a lot of time thinking in order to figure out what the next step is, or waiting for other people to come back to you with notes, or commissioning updates, or funding decisions. When I talk about my workaholicism, it doesn’t mean I sit down at my desk at 8am and then crank out ideas and sit in meetings and take calls solidly until 6pm. I spend a lot of my time thinking, and waiting, and figuring out. That’s part of what my job is.
But there’s an underlying value system to workaholicism that is absolutely corrosive – the idea that your worth and value as a person, and your very identity, are somehow tied to what you do for your work. I think this is particularly problematic in fields like comedy, where your life becomes your work – your job is partly to scout out your own lived experience, the things you do, the things that interest you, in order to convert them into a piece of creative work which, in theory, you might eventually need to sell in a crowded marketplace. It makes the dividing line between what is your work and what is your life very hard to put your finger on. I’ve had conversations with comedians who claim to feel like, outside of their work, they don’t really exist, and other conversations with comedians who deliberately throw themselves into chaotic situations and make destructive decisions because they are attempting to live following the structure of an Edinburgh show, and know it will give them a great story. On the other hand, I have friends who work in, say, the charity sector or in academia or in teaching, who don’t have this problem – they know that those specific areas don’t represent the sum total of their interest in the world, so they’re easily able to park that part of their identities at the end of the working day and shift their energy towards all the other things that make them who they are. For comedians, it can be difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. Who are we outside of the work?
For me, the other side of this coin is the sheer precariousness of the creative industries themselves – probably about 10% of the ideas you come up with in this business end up being things that other people will actually pay you for, so if I’m not constantly thinking about what other ideas I can conjure up from my lived experience that I might be able to turn into things that other people might enjoy, then I start to worry about where the money’s going to be coming from in six months’ time. This combination of factors – the unpredictability of the actual finances of this job, plus the lack of demarcation between the different parts of your identity that makes it hard to figure out which parts of yourself are for your work and which are just for you, makes workaholicism a real epidemic in comedy, and the risk of burnout and exhaustion is huge.
Not all workaholics look like this, you know… (Actually, maybe this is a bad example because Robin Williams was a comedian, and does look quite silly in this picture. Maybe I should have gone with Gordon Gecko or something. Oh well. When I think of workaholics, I think of Peter Banning in Hook, and that’s that)
It’s been fairly revelatory, then, to come to a sort of crossroads in the last couple of weeks that have led me to a decision that feels momentous for me – I’m going to have a rest! The onset of the Edinburgh Fringe was something that I wasn’t sure how I’d react to – it was the first time in over a decade that a fully operational Fringe was happening that I had chosen not to be a part of, and I wondered how that part of my identity would respond to seeing it going on without me. Would I feel envy? Regret? Bitterness? As it turned out, all I felt was excitement for the acts themselves – a sort of “You guys rock, go knock ‘em dead!” attitude – and relief that I wasn’t there myself, as I could be doing without the stress this year. It felt entirely like something happening over there that I didn’t need to let myself be defined by. All I needed to do was wish everyone taking part in it the best of luck. It didn’t feel like I’d left something behind, or killed a part of my identity, or any of the things I feared. It just felt like life was continuing on as normal. If I do go back to it, I won’t be returning to an old part of my identity that I put on the shelf, because I’ll be a different person and it will be a different festival. I’ll just be continuing to live. It didn’t represent the totality of who I was in the slightest.
At the same time, I finally started getting the feedback I’d been waiting on for several months about the scripted projects I’d been slowly putting together this year, and the feedback was…really good! People really liked the scripts, and wanted to talk about making them! They wanted to talk about them after August, naturally, because they were all about to go on holiday, like people with normal jobs do. But somehow, something about their reaction triggered a change in my thought process – “This is my job. It’s not a job I’m trying to get. It’s a job I’m already doing. I’m a scriptwriter.”
A lot of the workaholic factors above can make you feel like, in comedy, your entire life is an audition to get a job that’s outside of your control. Shifting the goalposts to remind yourself that you’re doing the job already takes a lot of mental effort. But when you start to do it, you’re able to remind yourself of other things – “If this is my job, I’m allowed to take a break, like everybody else. I’m allowed to have a holiday. I’m allowed to rest.”
So next week, I’m afraid (but also slightly relieved) to say, there will be no Therapy Tape – I’m going to go to Wales and take it easy for a bit! Maybe I’ll end up doing creative stuff, I don’t know, but it won’t be work. I’ll recharge. I think I might go on a proper holiday in September as well, but I’d have thought the newsletter will be back up and running for at least an instalment or two before then. But I think it’s time I reward myself for the work I’ve done so far this year by removing my need to put stuff out into the world on obligation. I think it’s time I put some energy into those other parts of myself that aren’t about producing work for other people to see. I think it’s time to have a rest.
I hope you all get one as well! I know a lot of the readership of this newsletter are fellow creative freelancers in equally precarious positions, so don’t worry, I feel your pain! I know how hard it is to switch off. But everybody gets to rest. Everybody gets to have a break. Nobody will hold it against you. Everyone will just be all the more excited to see your next idea when you’re ready to share it with the world. Treat yourself. It’s just a job, after all.
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Dunno, not been looking at the comedy news much this week. Feels quite nice.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – This, by Alistair Green.
Book Of The Week – The Girls Are Good by Ilaria Bernardini. This is a novel about the horrific culture of abuse within Olympic-level gymnastics, and the obsessively self-destructive lives teenage girls are forced to live in order to pursue it. It’s good, but it’s very much not a happy read.
Album Of The Week – Archangel Hill by Shirley Collins. I was so taken by the theme song for Bridget Christie’s excellent sitcom The Change that I went and found out what it is – it’s an updated version of “Hares On The Mountain,” a classic folk tune by Shirley Collins, who is now in her 80s and revisiting some of her oldest songs. This latest album of hers came out in May, and I had no idea she was still recording music. Her voice has a sort of ancientness to it now that in some ways makes it more beautiful than it was in the 60s.
Film Of The Week – I’ve not seen any films because we’ve become obsessed with watching Couple’s Therapy on BBC iPlayer, which is absolutely fantastic. Orna Guralnik is my new hero, and even though I am very happy in my relationship, I would quite like us to invent a feud so I can somehow get in front of her and have her listen to my life and tell me what’s really going on.
That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know what you think, and if you’d like to share this newsletter with a friend or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,
PS Here’s a sort of painter’s sky I saw outside my kitchen window the other day that I wanted to capture: