I’m in Qatar at the moment, doing my ‘other’ job, archaeology. I wouldn’t call it a day job, because in reality I don’t do much digging these days – I wish I could say it’s because I’ve too much writing to do, but actually it was having a baby that made stints abroad difficult to arrange. But I was lucky enough to be offered a chance of work with the Origins of Doha project, which was far too good an opportunity to pass up for all the obvious reasons – Travel! Adventure! An actual wage! So off I went.
|Small walls in Qatar. Copyright: Qatar Museums|
It’s got me thinking again about writers and their other work, the benefits and downsides thereof. It seems that the news is full of writers earning less and less, and having to return to other kinds of employment to pay the bills, and I think it’s pretty reasonable to argue that this isn’t a good thing. Mainly because writing well takes a lot of time and concentration and development, and doing it around other jobs is not only difficult but basically means sacrificing other elements of your life, such as family and breathing.
I always dreamed of being a writer. I never dreamed of being an archaeologist, until I ended up studying it by accident at university and discovered how endlessly fun and fascinating it could be (sometimes). And when I became a full-time archaeologist after I graduated, writing went straight out of the window – I was far too tired to pull anything sensible together on a page. I suppose I always thought that if I got the chance, I’d give archaeology up and happily write full time.
But I can’t leave archaeology alone anymore. Even when I’m writing, I sometimes find myself sitting back and dreaming about it, wishing so strongly to be digging again. And even though I’m often asked if it’s the stories element of archaeology that draws me to it, and I say that yes, that’s something to do with it, I don’t think that’s really the whole picture, these days.
Field archaeology, which is what I do, basically involves taking a site apart and trying to understand how it developed. Telling its story, of course. But on the level at which I do it, it’s basically a puzzle of which layers go over which other layers, sometimes a simple puzzle, sometimes not so simple. And I guess therein lies the appeal.
I find writing extremely complicated. Far too complicated, often. People say trying to understand an archaeological site is like trying to solve a jigsaw when you only have a few pieces, and you don’t know how big it is or what shape it is. That’s a fair summary. But to me, writing it like trying to solve a jigsaw when you have to first make each piece yourself, and all out of different materials because you don’t have enough of one thing. And then when you try to put the jigsaw together, you realise you’re sitting in a room full of mice, all of whom are trying to take your pieces and eat them or steal them away to line their nests with. After that, digging feels like surfacing from too long underwater.
I don’t say this because I'm moaning about writing - I’ve already found myself grabbing a paper and pen in my spare time here, and I love it more than ever when it's busting out, unforced. But it’s making me think that full time writing might not actually be what’s best for me, despite my dreams. Being able to write whenever you like is one thing, but having to write all the time is a very different beast, and I’m not good at feeling satisfied with my work, either the quantity or quality of it, when I write. Constant dissatisfaction wears me down, and I know it’s a problem I need to address, but I don’t think it’ll ever go away enough for me to really feel I’m doing well. When I dig, there is a huge amount of satisfaction to be found in earth shovelled, contexts peeled apart, small objects retrieved and a straight-sided trench that deepens by the day.
I suppose, in summary, the reason I write is because there is one place I feel entirely myself: alone at my desk, pen in hand, paper before me. I’ve always known that place, and I’ve always felt that way about it. But now, it seems, there’s another place where I feel like myself – a completely different version, but a strong and vital one all the same. And that’s kneeling on the ground with a trowel in my hand, following something in the dirt. And I’m finding, these days, that I can’t love one without the other. I'm sure I'm not alone in this.