A preliminary caveat and one I hope anyone reading this knows is always (if invisibly) at the beginning of every piece I write. This is written in full acknowledgement of my privilege – from my education, financial circumstances, parental support, to skin colour. I wholly accept that much of what is contained in this article exists because of the opportunities afforded by my privilege – to have the time, financial means and support to choose an unreliable career path, to take chances in the knowledge I have people to bolster me is a luxury not afforded to everyone. I apologise if anything in this article appears to take that for granted or dismiss the far more pressing concerns many live with every day. This is simply my experience and I write, not to devalue or trivialise anyone else’s experience, but rather to give a more honest account of a life people only glimpse through an Instagram post or finished piece.
A strange thing has been happening me of late. And I don’t mean clothes no longer fitting me even though I’ve barely changed my eating habits bar the 20 mince pies I’ve been consuming religiously and the new addition of cheese as a necessary festive accompaniment to every meal. Christmas instigating a return home and a rekindling of friendships defined by their sporadic communication, I have been catching up with people I don’t see regularly. Now, I believed the general etiquette for these interactions was a formula indisputable and absolutely impermeable to change – a polite interrogation filled with much head nodding and tinkling laughter that is swiftly concluded with the lightning consumption of whatever drink or delightfully miniature canapé you have to hand affording you the pretext to relinquish further smalltalk in search of a vital top-up. I thought it impossible to escape the quick-fire barrage of questions designed to appear innocuous but really calculated to cause bestial wailing in a childhood bedroom and three weeks with the worst song lyric of all time thundering repeatedly in your usually serene mental sanctum: “and so this is Christmas…AND WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” This emotionally manipulative and frankly abusive lyric now lodged firmly in the back of your throat like the whole roast potato you erroneously thought you could eat in one mouthful then brings on the tsunami of self-loathing now synonymous with January that can be summarised in musings such as: ‘What have I done?’ ‘What am I doing?’ ‘What do I have to say and/or show for myself?’ ‘Where am I going and, dear lord, will my parents ever be proud of me?’
Thinking this defining ritual of Christmas and New Year was incontrovertible fact, I was adequately prepared (in as much as one can be for gruesome self-reflection) for the avalanche of questions from legacy “home friends”, once-a-year-is-enough relatives, and old primary school teachers I always bump into in the local pub when I’ve “gone for one” but am now sipping my fourth gin with nothing but a belly of mince pies to steady me and my irreverent tongue. However, as I braced myself for the “so what are you up to these days?” (which we all know means “justify your entire lifestyle and contextualise every bad decision you’ve made since 2011 in thirty seconds while I judge you and your eccentric haircut silently”) I was left without sweating palms and heart palpitations as I was instead confronted, not with a question of how I was doing but rather a matter-of-fact statement on my personal, professional, and financial state.
“You’re killing it”, I was told.
With unwavering crispness, I was informed that I was, allegedly, “slaying it”. Without inflection, without a rising high note at the end to invite discussion or opinion on this apparent fact. Declarations that felt more like accusations, I have been encountering these kind of statements with worrying regularity of late.
“You’re living the dream” has become the ringing refrain of people who know me very well and those who don’t know me at all. And, while this is lovely, well-meant, and validating, it is also problematic and not a little uncomfortable.
Now, let’s be absolutely clear – life has been pretty darn kind to me in 2019. I mean, if we’re going to play the ‘this time last year game’ (a personal favourite pastime of mine that I like to reserve for particularly theatrical hangovers or the moment just before I fall asleep when I’ve a really big presentation at work the next day), it is objective fact that I am doing MUCH better than 2018 Holly. In fairness, it wouldn’t be hard.
This time last year, I was incontrovertibly unemployed with absolutely no pathway out of this unemployment. An internship I had been praying would lead to my first real job and an escape from part-time work, did not end in a contract. I was stranded, lost, and out of my depth in an ocean in which everyone else I knew was bobbing along on flotation devices of varying levels of security. As I was signing on to the dole, my friends were signing mortgages for their first house. I was, essentially, Jack in that last scene in Titanic while all around me were rocking a more ‘Leo in The Wolf of Wall Street on one of his many luxurious yachts’ kind of vibe.
That has now changed. A very feeble – but impassioned! – attempt at a blog (I’m not sure one essay every two months quite qualifies me for blog status) has blossomed into a writing career that has spanned some of Ireland’s best publications (this cheeky Glossy number included). A dream to work for an NGO whose ethos and impact I truly believe in has bloomed to fruition.
I am incredibly, wordlessly (because no words are good enough), thrillingly grateful for this. I am profoundly, acutely, all-consumingly aware of how lucky I am – how fortunate! – to live the life I currently and proudly call mine. I completely understand, and am thankful for, the comments that recognise this change in circumstances. But. Luck has nothing to do with it.
That wistful or worse, resentful, exhale of “you’re so lucky” that always somehow leaves the lucky one feeling the need to apologise for whatever it is they’ve achieved, is a toxic fallacy we need to exterminate. Everything that has happened to me over the past year has occurred, not because of the divine intervention of some ethereal being but because I simply asked for it. In fact, to say it happened to me feels unfair because it implies a passivity on my part, a shrug-filled inevitability like nepotism in the medieval catholic church. Nothing has “just happened”; nothing has fallen into my lap or any of the other expressions Irish people use to detract from their own worth and work. I made it happen.
I asked for it.
My writing career (puke, puke, puke, internal vomit, I loathe myself) began with the words ‘dear editor’. It began with not even knowing who this obscure ‘editor’ was or if this mythical being even existed behind the generic email addresses I scammed from the fine print of newspaper websites. It began with me spending New Year’s Eve lying in a younger sibling’s bed constructing an email I had no guarantee would ever be read let alone responded to. An email in which I earnestly and plaintively asked to be hired by an industry making actual qualified, experienced veterans redundant on a weekly basis. I had no qualifications, contacts, experience, or knowledge to recommend me. In fact, one of my main arguments for employment rested on the fact I’d won the 2005 ‘Dear Grace’ competition in primary school – the only published work to my name.
However, I was honest – with myself and these editors – about what I wanted. I was honest in my ambition and the realisation that I either needed to start trying or stop torturing myself with the promise of someday. There was nothing glamorous, prophetic, or lucky about it – it was the simple, invisible, underrated yet infinitely noble art of trying. And that trying – the blatant, unapologetic, inhibitionless assertion of asking for it, won me one commission. And then another.
This is what so irks me about expressions like “killing it” and “living best lives” – even when they come from a good and pride-filled place. They disregard the hard work, emotional labour and often financial insecurity that accompanies any kind of trying – professional or otherwise. Within this lexicon there is no acknowledgement of the contextualising ‘how’, there is only the shiny ostentation of ‘what’. It airbrushes the gritty, lonely, uncertain reality, dismisses the graft that goes into winning and then delivering every article deemed worthy of publication, and ignores the relentless rejection that, for all its “character-building” benefits, still bruises an already mottled self-belief. It distorts a constructed ideal of success in which we’re taught to covet “it” – whatever that it may be – but not to ask for it.
A published article doesn’t show the harassment it can take to get it published – the pithy introductory emails to editors, the upbeat but insistent follow ups, the “I just wanted to check ins”, the interminable dance around the delicate tango of “how much and when am I getting paid?” It doesn’t show the crippling insecurity and horror that accompanies a blank page, a deadline, and one chance to “prove yourself”. It doesn’t show the exaggeratedly dramatic Lose Yourself music video that takes place in my bedroom at ungodly hours as I grapple with the possibility of a breakthrough and the sheer terror of blowing my one opportunity at a career I’ve spent a lifetime wanting.
The “killing it” fantasy doesn’t factor in the emotional labour and inevitable pressure of a world of influencers/writers/columnists/novelists/personalities already allegedly smashing it too. For every piece of mine commissioned, I see someone else writing three. For every follower I gain on social media, there is someone else posturing with their thousands. I am riddled with a pressure to “strike while the iron is hot” – every opportunity is a potential big break, every email repartee with an editor, every commission, every Instagram story holds the power to catapult me into stratospheric success. That is an awesome amount of pressure to live with and live up to…and a debilitating dose of disappointment when none of the above happens.
Yet that is the reality of “killing it”. Of feeling, actually, like you’re failing most of the time. Of feeling like there’s now something to live up to – an expectation of all who know you, intimately and otherwise, to pander to, to perform to. That is very, very scary, very, very lonely, very, very hard and very, very difficult to explain to someone who you can now see feeling inadequate in your company because they’ve misinterpreted your highlights reel as your reality. I’ve begun to feel the need to apologise for my ‘success’, to apologise for being ambitious – of knowing what I want and then going out to get it. I feel corralled sometimes into appearing to be less happy than I am because I don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings, or appear obnoxious or arrogant. I shake off any praise with some witticism in which I am the hapless joke, or brush off the sweat and emotional stamina of just T-R-Y-I-N-G because it doesn’t fit with this cool, laidback “slaying it” lifestyle I’m supposedly living.
And so, as a brand new year begins and all around me are forming intentions and resolutions and giving their retrospective on the decade that was, all I want is a moment. A moment for the power of asking for it and the reminder that we all hold potential to get what we want once we are resilient, passionate, and true to who we are. That there is no rulebook, recipe or timeline for success – whatever that bizarre word means. All there is is putting your hand up, forcing yourself out of your comfort zone and learning to be ok with whatever that brings. Of thrusting ourselves out into the ether of rejection, into the no-man’s-land glory of complete vulnerability and the mercy of a ‘no’.
Lads, I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. I have no idea how long this “writing thing” will last, how much further I can take it, how long I can juggle ambition with practicality, dreaming with living. If I can continue in this solitary act of opening myself up to a world of criticism or, worse, a void in which no one is listening, reading. Next year’s New Year’s Eve could see me once more confined to the bed where, instead of a Lothario asking me if I’d like some more prosecco, my sister is asking if my bed sores need turning. “Killing it” can not last forever. Asking for it, however, is an eternal option – one we don’t have to take right now, or tomorrow. But one, when we’re finally ready to try, is the biggest act of self-love we can achieve. To the editors who took a chance (with special mention to the spectacular Gloss team) – thank you. I am endlessly grateful that you’ve given me the audacity to dub myself ‘writer’, even when there were so many reasons you shouldn’t. To those who have said no or, as I like to think of it, just haven’t said yes yet, I hope you like bombardment.