Saturday, February 18, 2012

Guilty/Not Guilty by Sarah Byrne

Sarah (EC) Byrne is a lawyer and jazz vocalist from Canberra, the capital of Australia, where she has held such diverse roles as General Counsel to the AMA (Australian Medical Association), Public Advocate of the Australian Capital Territory, and lead singer for the Spectrum Big Band and quartet Frequently Asked Questions. Her chief characteristics are extraordinary impatience, and a great love of books, theatre, jazz, vintage earrings and of course her remarkably patient partner, Peter, who claims to have been selected especially by a secret panel of experts.

by Sarah Byrne

A few years ago I had the great privilege of appearing on a panel at a crime fiction convention with some really outstanding reviewers and critics, to speak about the topic of what new books we thought were great and wanted to recommend to others who might not have discovered them yet. These were serious writers in their own right, with a lot of years and accolades between them, recognised in the crime fiction community as experts. People whose names, unlike mine, you will have heard of.

As we met in the Green Room and introduced ourselves, I felt it best to make a clean breast of my terrible sins of omission and set expectations low from the beginning. “I hope this is OK, guys,” I said, “but I’m planning to talk mainly about Australian crime fiction. I just haven’t had an opportunity this year to get as far into the rest of the new releases as I’d have liked.” I made this confession with some trepidation - wasn’t I essentially volunteering that I had no right to be on a panel with the rest of these luminaries, people who actually read and reviewed for a living, former “Fan Guests of Honour”, people who must know and devour all the hot new stuff, usually before it even hit the shelves? At best, I could surely only be there as the red-shirted ensign of comic relief.*

To my surprise, and gratitude, this admission was met with a collective sigh of relief, and a general outpouring of "oh, thank goodness, I can't get through a fraction of what hits my desk/am so far behind in my reading/have a TBR pile a mile high/haven't even read Girl With the Dragon Tattoo yet"!! It seemed NO ONE had time to do all the reading they felt they need or were expected to do. Even the people who did it for a living! I suddenly felt a lot better about my credentials, with a bit more perspective on how much is out there and how much normal person could reasonably be expected to read. And it turned out to be a great, fun, packed out panel, because in fact, all of us had read a pretty respectable amount.

But afterward, I got to thinking: why did I feel so guilty about not having read more? Why did all of us (well, most of us!) feel like we hadn't done enough? How did I manage to take something I love and did for fun into something which was work and an obligation?

It's actually something I seem to do a lot, and I know I'm not alone. I talked to a friend the other day who has a job and family commitments which suck up all of her time. For years now she's been longing to take singing lessons, to do something for herself for once. Three years after I gave her the number of a great teacher, she's finally started lessons, and two weeks in is paralysed with anxiety. How is she going to practise every day? And find time for lessons? And get through the written work? Something that was supposed to be a source of joy and refuge is suddenly one more burden to worry about and sacrifice time for. Why do we do this to ourselves?

Another friend loves pantomime and agreed to write an original kids show for a local children's theatre. As the deadline approached he got more and more blocked and more and more anxious. He actually stopped going out in the evenings and on weekends because he couldn't finish this thing he'd promised and felt obligated to spend every spare moment writing (or, to be more accurate, staring into a blank screen while sinking into a slough of despond and desperation.) His girlfriend fought with him over it. Finally he delivered most of a script and confessed he didn’t have the rest in him. We all hope for a happy ending.

A few years ago, my sister the US resident was planning to use her two weeks annual leave to visit Australia. Everyone loves an overseas holiday, right? Except every time she started talking about it she almost cried from sheer exhaustion. After working her @rse off for 12 months**, she was going to fly 20 hours in economy class with a toddler, and then spend the whole ten days flying around the country to catch up with people she felt would be offended if she didn't. She knew there wouldn't be time for everyone and was already stressed about how to deal with that. And then she would fly 20 hours home again and would not get another two weeks break for another 12 months. Finally I persuaded her (well, her common sense kicked in and she decided) not to go. As badly as I wanted to see her, this was clearly the worst idea for a holiday ever. Again, something that should have been relaxing and exciting and something to look forward to had become a source of guilt and fatigue.

Possibly I am particularly crazy in this respect. I'm a musician in my spare time - something I truly do love - so last year I found myself on the boards of two music organisations. And I'm a theatre nut, and wound up on the board of a local theatre company too. ( I was not quite crazy enough to actually put myself forward for election to any of these; in each case I was approached and co-opted, because a lawyer is always useful on a board, and hey, I love music and theatre, right?) And everyone knows I love books, so I also somehow found myself committed to giving a speech at our High Court on Dickens' bicentenary, and ... Oh, a whole heap of things that looked shiny and fun, but then turned out to be a huge amount of work and a source of stress and quiet misery. I even feel guilty about my monthly book group, where mainly I catch up with dear friends over a cup of coffee, if I haven’t finished the book. Although fortunately most of us are in similar boats, and the actual reading of the allotted book has long since become aspirational rather than compulsory.

This year I am trying my hardest not to put myself under this sort of needless pressure. I have a stressful job with long hours, and a few health problems I need to address, and any free time I have I'm going to enjoy, dammit. And I’m damned if I’m going to feel guilty about it! I weaselled out of my Dickens speech (not before finding the organisers two far better & more qualified speakers) and resigned from the two music boards; I've refused to nominate for re-election for the theatre company next month. I know that someone needs to do this stuff, but perhaps it should be people out there who can find it genuinely rewarding. I've even decided that I'm not going to stay past interval for a show I'm not enjoying. I used to feel guilty for wasting the cost of the ticket, but then it occurred to me: why did I buy that ticket? To enjoy myself, right? So if I'm not enjoying myself, why waste my time as well?

And I'm going to read whatever I like, not what I feel I ought to read to make myself qualified to be a part of the crime fiction community. I got into that because I love it - and I want it to stay that way.

Sarah (EC) Byrne

(*yes, yes, “Galaxy Quest”.)

** why is it that despite consistently working my @rse off, there never seems to be any actual reduction in @rse?


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Sarah - Hi and Welcome, m'dear! Now, you do know I'm going to be checking on you to make sure you're doing these things, right?! No more putting yourself in these situations causing so much stress. Well - okay, "less" of them anyway.

You make excellent points that we should each pay some very close attention to.

Thank you, Sarah, for being here. (will I see you at Malice?).


Vicki Lane said...

How nice to find you here, Sarah! I remember your intelligent and witty posts on DorothyL. One does have to learn to say no eventually, doesn't one?

Mary Welk said...

You've said what so many of us only think, Sarah. It's truly time for all of us to say good-bye to guilty feelings and enjoy what time we have left in life. Thanks for your thoughtful comments on this issue.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I just made that resolution too, and plan to do a lot more reading for fun over the next few months, even if it means blogging less. There, I said it.

Sarah in Canberra said...

Thanks, all! Let's hope I can practise what I preach. And while sometimes it absolutely is about saying no, more often for me it's about resisting what seems to be a natural tendency to turn everything into work, somehow feeling that fun is not good enough end in itself. But I'm learning! (Though Vicki, my absence from DorothyL has, in fact, been another source of guilt!)

Melissa Chaddock (nee Eyears) said...

Sarah, good to see you have maintained your high standard of prose 30 years on. Are you interested in hearing about our school reunion planned for later this year. Hopefully you've managed to lead a less hectic life (I certainly haven't learned that lesson yet)since you wrote that piece. All the best, Melissa Chaddock(nee Eyears).