My son and I recently started reading this book called Look Up. It features a character called Jamal who is always looking down at his phone – nicknamed ‘silly phone’ by his sister, Rocket - to the extent that he is missing out on key events of life (his sister being adorable), things that could potentially harm his life (an oncoming car) and moments that are life changing (a once in a blue moon meteor shower). Anyway, my son has taken Jamal to heart. Whenever he sees me on my phone, he says "Mummy, look, it’s your silly phone".
I am in a co-dependent obsessive relationship with my phone. It has been going on for years. My friends do not understand this and it makes me wonder if it is unique to publishing, because our work is such a wrap around entity. We do not have a traditional 9-5 way of working. We build relationships with each other in the same way we do friendships, which requires the same heightened sense of communication; we read on weekends and in the evenings; we (used to) go for coffees and lunches. So much of what we do is a continual stream pouring through the gaps of our non-working lives. It's why we never really stop and it's why so often, we can suffer from burnout. But that's because we care - because each author and each book is a personal enterprise for us. We are invested financially and emotionally with equal measure. And with the advent of the internet on our telephones... well, it's even less possible for us to switch off than ever before.
So perhaps that's why the only the time my phone and I ever have a break up and see other people is during Christmas. Because this is when I am able to be completely and utterly present. Publishing shuts down and I don’t have to think about emails waiting for me, or submissions going on in the virtual universe around me, or meetings and coffees I am not attending, because I know we have all been given a sacred space of rest. I go nuts at Christmas. The phone goes down; the mistletoe goes up. I am grounded in my environment in a way that does not happen for me the other 11 months of the year.
But Christmas 2020 was not the rest and recharge it usually is. I doubt it was that way for any of us. And the last 14+ months have felt relentless. We are beyond porous in our lives, we are just a full-on break of the flood: work/home/family/parents/relationships/friendships/working out – there are no demarcations. It is all a swirling vortex existing within the small spaces of our homes because we have essentially been trapped here during three lockdowns and one partial summer.
I would like to break up with my phone, but I don’t know how. I don’t know how to put it down when my email notifications are constantly calling me back, my whatsapp messages with clients and editors demand attention. And honestly it was easier before to set down a boundary because there was a boundary but now – well when are any of us ever officially off now? There is no office/home life because home life and office life is just, well, life. And while adrenalin junkie me used to thrive on this, of late it’s started to feel like we are all on petrol fumes. More and more I am talking to people who love their jobs but are starting to feel…empty. As if they’re on mile 26 of a marathon, but the mile just. Will. Not. End.
And the concept of “unlocking” and coming back feels both deliciously thrilling but also more exhausting. Because the truth is for the last 14 months, we haven’t lived; we’ve survived.
Our jobs are centred around voices and stories, but to do that we have to learn from our lives. We mine our lives constantly for what resonates with us, what moves us, what appeals to us. That is what stories essentially are – reflections of us as we wish we could be, as we are and as we hope to change. But considering we’ve been living in a cortisol-fuelled survival mode for over a year now, it’s no wonder if the pickaxe starts to scrape concrete finally and won’t break through.
So I am proposing this radical and probably ludicrous suggestion. What if when we “unlock”, we all just had a summer Christmas? What if publishing shut down again for a brief respite and we all gave ourselves permission to go and live our lives again? To just stop for three weeks and meet friends, be with family, go to an art gallery and stare at that painting for an hour with a small coffee cup you didn’t bring from home and let your mind wander. Walk through a shop and let your fingers slip through curtains of fabric. Sit on the side of a pavement and watch people live their lives. Or just go and live your own. Have bad dates and good drinks and just live. Shake off the ossification of the last 14 months and know that you’re not missing out at work, you’re not behind, you’re not chasing up. You can rest, you can stop. You can find yourself again.
Wouldn’t that version of you then walk back into the (newly-opened) office on the Monday afterwards excited, filled with new ideas, new perspectives to discuss? Wouldn’t that person have stories to tell and better ways to tell them because you went out and sampled it for yourself? Because your phone was used to take a picture of you in a pub garden with your friend laughing over gin, instead of poring over the list of meetings for that week?
Wouldn’t that version of you be more patient? More ready for this new sea-change coming this summer?
Wouldn’t that just make you happier, and aren’t we better when we’re happier?
Or maybe that’s insane.
Maybe that’s what holiday days are for, you could rightfully say. But I would argue that holidays in publishing are never holidays because somewhere, something is always happening and the phone doesn’t ever stop. That's why at Christmas we give ourselves a sacred space to actually be with the family and friends we have neglected for the past year.
Or maybe that's just me. Maybe you've acheieved a balance and discipline that I haven't. Maybe this is just my problem and maybe we should just accept that and be grateful we have a job at all when so many don’t.
Maybe all of those things are true.
But I can still dream about those three weeks. In the meantime – I am writing this, on my phone.
Nelle Andrew is an agent at RML. She was nominated for Agent of the Year in 2018 and was a Bookseller Rising Star in 2016.