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Creative Non-Fiction: 'A Way to Make a Living'

Written by Beth Kilkenny

I send W a DM on Instagram. It’s Susan Sontag in meme form. ‘How can I describe my life to you? I think a lot, listen to music, I’m fond of flowers.’ Immediately she responds, ‘This is how I’m going to reply next time someone asks me what I do. 

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A list of things I wanted to be when I grew up but didn’t pursue on the basis they were ‘difficult to get into:’ Journalist, Librarian, ‘in publishing’, radio presenter. 

If I’d started then I would be there by now. 

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What do you do? For eight hours a day or more. For money. How are you paying for yourself? How are you telling the world of your worth? What should I think about you? Which is the box I should put you in? What do you do that keeps you from loved ones? Draws you away from passionate pursuits? What do you do? 

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I don’t remember who gave me the message that anything difficult to get into wasn’t worth trying, but that was the message I got. 

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At 15 I did work experience in a solicitor’s office. I spent the week photocopying and developing a girl crush on one of the secretaries whose favourite song was Mandy by Barry Manilow. My report at the end of the week said it would be helpful if pupils had an idea of their career path before the visit. No kidding. 

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Like many people who love books I had an English teacher I also loved. We studied Alan Bennett at ‘A’ Level. The teacher scrawled on the blackboard, ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,’ on the blackboard as if he expected a roomful of 17 year olds to understand.

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Because I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I thought I had to do anything. I worked in bars and restaurants, work for which I was temperamentally ill-equipped. I washed glasses at the end of the night in a working men’s club where the cigarette smoke hung in the air like a malignant cloud after everyone had left.  I worked in a call-centre selling train tickets. People can get pretty angry when they’re booking train tickets. I worked in a data entry office, calculating the bonus payments of men in the south-east of England who spent their days reading electricity meters. During a summer of temping, I found myself on a reception desk, answering the phone. One time I answered and it was one of the directors of the company. ‘Can you announce yourself when you answer?’ he said. Announce myself? As what?

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Following a well-trodden path of people with an English degree and a lack of direction, I began Teaching English as a Foreign Language in a family-owned language school in Dublin city centre. It was enjoyable, for a very short amount of time, and then it was awful. You have to interrogate Spanish teenagers about their favourite colour; not only whether they have one, but why?  At the end of the week, we used to pass evaluation forms to the class and watch as they filled them. Smiley face, straight mouth face, sad face, very sad face. I realised I couldn’t continue as an English language teacher any longer when I forgot the word emigrant exists, even though I am one.

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If you are a woman who does not know what you want to be when you grow up, chances are you will find yourself sooner or later in the pink ghetto of administrative work. Capable, educated women gathered in open plan offices doing all kinds of organisational work; often also tasked with fixing photocopiers, providing tea and coffee, arranging Christmas parties and collections for colleagues on maternity leave. Sometimes if you listen carefully, you can hear collective pops of rage when a senior colleague bursts into the room and addresses them, ‘Hello Girls!’

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And things I never thought about becoming: mother: writer: mother/writer.

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After my second, and last, maternity leave I returned to the job that I had been in for the last six years. W and I developed a camaraderie based on a shared sense of underlying desperation and similar TV viewing patterns. We threw around names for the blogs we were going to start: my favourite was ‘the end of the road’ which described both our geographical and metaphorical situation. 

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Being a ‘working mother’, I had become obsessed with the value we placed on motherhood and the value we place on paid labour. I read texts by women written when I was a child. Marilyn Waring, a feminist economist writing in the 1980s, said, ‘Every time I see a mother with an infant I know I am seeing a woman at work.’

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W moved to a new job, but we continued to meet for lunch. She brought leftovers of healthy lentil dishes in an old ice cream container, and I brought sandwiches on white bread wrapped in kitchen foil. We talked about work, but what we were really talking about was value, and where to find it.

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The more I worked, the less I could understand why paid work is seen as inherently more valuable, both economically and personally, than caring for children. There is nothing inherently valuable about the majority of jobs. And there is no reason why I should feel any more personal fulfilment from working for a large organisation than I should in caring for my children. 

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I wanted more; I did not know what I wanted.  

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And time passed, as time does, and still I did not figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up. I continued going to work. I continued caring for my children. I began to write. Being a mother and being a writer are both about bearing witness to the everyday. Is this where value could be found?

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How can I describe my life to you? I walk suburban streets at dusk and marvel at the sun setting in a place I cannot see, I swim in icy waters when frost is on the ground, I cry at girls playing soccer being coached by gentle hearted men,I worry about things I said to people I hardly know. I read a lot. I write. 

 

What do you do? 

About the Author

Beth Kilkenny is a writer of short fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry and is particularly interested in works of hybrid form. She was the winner of the From The Well Short Story competition 2023 and Books Ireland Flash Fiction 2022, and is a former recipient of the Words Ireland Mentorship Programme. Beth is currently working on a collection of life writing as a participant in the Granta Writing Memoir Workshop.  

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