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Jane Routley – Women’s History Month

Most writers have trouble with their hands or backs just as most ballet dancers have trouble with their feet. I was only 24 when I had my first bout of tendonitis. I’d strained myself in my final cataloguing exam and then went straight out to work stamping books in a library. What had seemed like a piece of luck, turned out to be a disaster. Soon the pain in my shoulders and arms was keeping me up at night. And the worry. RSI was in all the papers at the time and I was certain I had it. The doctors agreed.

I left my job – it was casual and I didn’t want a workers compensation claim on my work record anyway – and went on sickness benefits. That was a horrible 6 months. My mother had gone overseas for the year and I’d been working for the money to join her. I lived in a share house with a fascinating but very difficult friend. I was broke, I had no family support, I spent most of what I had on physiotherapy, I’d just finished Uni so I was suddenly directionless and I’d recently broken up with my long term boyfriend. I’d been longing with a mix of fear and trepidation for all the essays to end so that I could start being a writer. That seemed about to go down the toilet along with my writing career. A life of sickness benefits and poverty seemed to loom. On top of all this I secretly feared I was a neurotic malingerer hiding from the world behind psychosomatic pain.

My mother sent me money for treatment and slowly I put things back together. Counselling and physiotherapy reassured me that my pain was real and so could heal. I’d been neglecting shoulder and back pain all through my university years. It was this that was causing my arm and wrist pain. I started on a regime of regular stretching exercises and tried to keep swimming and keep fit.

Like many SF nerds I hate exercise so it’s been a lesson which I keep having to relearn. You have to maintain your body otherwise it lets you down and you wind up in pain and at the physiotherapist. Small amounts of boring annoying daily exercise (blah!) are better than big lumps of boring annoying exercise once a fortnight. And you should keep your typing muscles flexible in the same way as well.

After my recovery from the pain, I slowly worked my way through a series of short term casual jobs until after 18 months I was able to start my first permanent job as a librarian. During this time writing was a balancing act. I was afraid of getting injured again which made me very dilettantish. But I wrote some short stories and got some good feedback. I kept at it even though it would have been easier to give up. Being a writer was the dream which gladdened my daily grind.

As a feminist I’m a bit ashamed to have to admit how much I owe my husband. But he deserves a lot of credit for the writing career I do have. He was the one who got a job in Germany, where (horror of horrors! 🙂 ) I was not allowed to work for the first two years. He supported me while I devoted myself to writing alone. I was able to keep my back pain at bay. I was able to do the 10 thousand hours or so you need to get good at something. And Germany and Denmark, both of them places with great public transport and bicycle lanes, were good places to stay fit as well. Since I set my own hours I was able to pace myself and avoid more tendonitis.

The nineties were a great time for me. I wrote four novels, I lived in Europe, I had a publisher and I took myself to some killer SF conventions.

Things changed horribly around the beginning of the noughties. Publishers everywhere started shedding their mid-list authors – those who sold books but weren’t best sellers. Knowing that this might be going to happen didn’t make it easier to spend the four years writing and rewriting the last book I wrote for them, the sequel that they passed over and which I hope to bring out as an ebook sometime soon.

The IT work dried up and we returned to Australia to live. We’d been getting homesick anyway and were glad to be home, but alas, it was time for me to get back to the real world and earn a living. The fact that my skill with the Dewey Decimal System was in demand was a mixed blessing. I made good money but after a while the ugly spectre of tendonitis started to rear its head again.

But this time instead of being a disaster, it was actually a piece of luck in disguise. At a time when circumstances in the publishing industry were telling me to go back to full time work and to writing as a hobby, the choice was suddenly made very stark. My body wouldn’t let me do data entry as a cataloguer all day and come home and write all evening or on the weekend. I couldn’t be a writer and a librarian.

I started looking around for part-time work that would pay the bills but not involve data entry. In this day and age it’s not easy. All white collar jobs no matter how humble now involve some kind of data entry. Eventually I stumbled on an ad for Railway Station Attendants in the local paper. I’ve always liked trains. They’re a kind of cut-price promise of wider worlds. It was the best career choice I’ve ever made. If you’ve read the Station Stories I’ve been posting regularly on my blog you will know that I love my job.

Sometimes when I’m wondering if I will ever sell another book or if I will ever be able to go overseas again (or buy a new car when the old one dies) I doubt I’ve made the right career choice. But even though I only write a couple of hours a day, I still have the odd sleepless night of pain and the odd sheepish visits to the physio or chiropractor confessing that, no I haven’t been doing my exercises. I swear I will dedicate my next book to these people.

Deep down I know that this is the best choice for me. I’m very lucky not to have any children or mortgage to support. Tendonitis has dominated my career decisions. I’m not glad about that, but I can see it has forced me to focus on what is really important to me. I’m happy with my life path in a way I wouldn’t have been had I stuck at being a cataloguer. That is the only success that matters.

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