Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Ending a career positively

Everything has a use-by date. I know I've opened a blog post with this line before, but its only as we grow older that we begin to pay more attention to the things around us that come to an end. It usually starts with a long running TV show that airs its' final episode or a favourite footballer who hangs up the boots, but the older we get the longer the list becomes. We'll get surprised when our favourite restaurant closes down, shocked when our favourite products become unavailable and disillusioned when a favourite place that we visit doesn't live up to the memories they once held. Somewhere along the way we'll lose hair, money or even the drive that has kept us going all those years, and before too long we start referring to the past as the good old days.

That's life. And no matter what kind or work we do, brand of clothes we wear or car we drive, everything has a use-by date.

If you're an artist, athlete or even a less-recognised writer such as myself, what you do now is not going to be what you do forever. Eventually every footballer will take his last kick, every race car driver will turn the engine off for the final time and every actor take his or her last bow. Sometimes, due to injury or contractual disagreements and the like, that moment happens without warning. Lately however I've been noticing a growing trend of athletes announcing their retirement before the start of a season, with the statement of wanting to go out a winner. Their fans rally behind them and the season becomes a glorious swansong, that win or lose, hopefully still ends on a positive note rather than being stretchered from the field for the final time.

So why don't actors, singers or writers follow suit? Probably because in each instance, you are only as good as your next album, movie or book. A flop can usually signal game over, while a smash-hit always brings the temptation for 'just one more.' I've never heard of a writer pre-announcing that their next book will be their last. Art works entirely different to sport. Everyone is looking for the next 'insert name here,' who is like them only different. Different gets attention, and attention sells. The problem with different however, is that different has a short shelf life. Perhaps that is why I find myself drawing less and less inspiration from these people, and instead pay a little more attention to the heroics on a football field.

Name any singer, actor or actress from the recent past who was a little too different, and I can guarantee you that their fifteen minutes of fame has long expired. Fame too has an expiry date.

While an athlete's body remains the best indicator of knowing when to call time on their career, it is more likely that an actor, musician or writer's curtain call follows closely behind a stinker. Yet that doesn't have to be the case. After seeing my own writing come full circle to where I was ten years ago, I came up with these five simple questions to put to myself. I'm sure you could substitute the word 'this' with any career or profession, from goal-kicker to project manager to extract an honest answer from yourself.

  1.  Will not doing this anymore be something I can live without?
  2.  Is continuing with this beginning to cause me anxiety?
  3.  Am I already looking forward to doing something else when this is over?
  4.  Are there more genuine things other than this that deserve my time and money?
  5.  Am I able to look back on this with a sense of pride?

If you answered yes to all of the above five questions, then you guessed it. You should probably be planning to do something else.

Of course there are sometimes other tangibles that may indicate your career is coming to an end. The Train Tripping books that I first started writing back in 2014 now have other factors dictating that their shelf-life is fast approaching an expiration date. With a budget of zero, my self-published railway guide adventures have taken me on board everyday trains around Australia, from the humble XPT to the 7:20 am to Warrnambool. While money and a lack of sponsorship ruled out adding any Trans-continental epic adventures to my series, some of the trains featured in my books are now in the process of being replaced by newer versions commencing in 2020. This in turn makes the trains that I have written about (and quite possibly my books) obsolete in about two years time.

Then there are my Last Train books. Instead of getting excited that my self-produced fusion of railway photography and Australian bush poetry was something fresh and new, I've had the sense to sit back and see my work for what it is. Different. Good different? Yes. But in such a niche genre of writing as to make it impossible to even command those fifteen minutes of fame. With my next book almost complete, my thoughts are already wrestling with whether to continue the series.

Photographing old and abandoned railway stations becomes increasingly harder with each passing year. More and more decaying structures are being demolished due to government health and safety concerns, and preservation groups and government bodies can make it nearly impossible to gain permission to legally use the images in a commercial sense. The research required, coupled with the expense of travelling great distances, (such as flying to the other side of Australia and spending the best part of two weeks bouncing down dusty roads in a rental car to collect the necessary photos), makes the thought of another of these books prohibitive.

Perhaps a more positive approach would be to plan one final hurrah, and make it a good one!

Instead of feeling ripped-off that I didn't have the time or budget to cover more adventures, I'm taking it as a positive that I at least get the opportunity to decide how I want to finish with one last great adventure. Back in October 2016, I wrote my 100th and final railway reminiscing post on this blog, and began with the words everything has a use-by date. It's strange how your own words can come sometimes come back to haunt you.

For myself, writing about my love of trains was only ever intended to be a short diversion from my writing fiction. Beyond writing that last great railway adventure however, the fire is no longer there. I can live without it. The thought of putting myself out there again causes me anxiety. I'm already enjoying interests other than writing, and there are a million other things more deserving of my time and money. Strangely the drive is now about finishing what I've started, and ending a career positively.

I guess that will be the moment I can answer question 5 with a yes, and look back on it all with a sense of pride. No sour grapes, no hard-luck writer's stories, and no regrets. Not being able to forge a full-time writing career hasn't been through lack of trying. Take a look back through this blog and you'll see just how far and wide I travelled promoting my novels, back in the good old days.

We live in a world of talented people. There are more writers, actors, musicians and artists living around us now than when I was I kid. Good grief, it stands to reason that not everyone is going to make it to the top when most can't even get a foot in the door. But even then, everything has a use-by date. Even the best of them.

At the end of the day, I think its better to have tried and not got your fifteen minutes of fame, than to have not recognised when your fifteen minutes were up! 

So with no pressure, no self-imposed deadlines and no great expectations, I suddenly have a much clearer outlook on how I'd like to approach finishing up my railway-themed books and moving onto the next project. Whatever that may be. Now to get back to some writing. I'll let you know when my next Last Train book is coming out.

See also; One Final Railway Reminisce and Is blogging still relevant?

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