Words by Kate-Lois Elliott
In your late twenties, you start to look to the future. You perhaps realise that the assumptions you made at 16 about where you’d be at 27, 33 or 40 come from media related hype, involving ancient societal pressures on any woman over 27 to marry immediately and sort her life out, all the while with a deeply ingrained will to overachieve but zero direction, and various emotional scars from watching too many Disney movies.
It’s the classic, ‘When I am 27 I will have an enviable career at some fabulous advertising/ fashion/film/fine art company, be married, with a son and daughter, own a flat in the city, a house in the country, and a German Shorthaired Pointer’
In Elizabeth Bennet’s world, an unmarried woman of 27 years was but a year away from becoming an official ‘spinster’ and a financial burden to her parents. We’ve come a long way from the days of Jane Austen, but something remains: somewhere, ingrained deeply in the abyss of our minds is a nagging pain that tells us to hurry up. It tells us that our biological clock is ticking and that we’re going to start descending in value the minute we hit 27, like the singular vine-ripened tomato in the sun, shrivelling slowly day by day as the worms wriggle closer.
Somewhere deep down we are aware of this outdated milestone, and like good feminists, we dismiss the madness of obligatory marriage as old-fashioned and unnecessary, but what do we replace it with? ‘Work’ said my housemate. She was right. Somewhere in the back of my subconscious mind, I’d been expecting to have reached some sort of career utopia by the time I was 28. I expected to be fully satisfied creatively, an established proficient in that one thing, which I was going to be successful at for the rest of my life.
If you are reading this and thinking, ‘Well I pretty much have all I need’ or even ‘I made good choices throughout my late teens and early twenties’ and you’re under 33, well, good for you. Most of us are somewhere in-between, somewhere far behind, or frantically sifting through the reduced jam section in Fortnum and Mason, secretly hoping that this small taste of the high life will act as a catalyst for disillusionment, and remind us of what truly matters. Hopefully, at some point, we’ll be able to whole-heartedly give the jam away to passers-by on the street as an act of liberation from society, capitalism and our family’s expectations.
The truth is when the time comes that we start to look back and realise that we can't redo anything, whenever that time does come, the shock of it can be no better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
There are some classic, supposedly helpful questions that will get asked when you’re faced with any sort of existential crisis: ’Where do you see yourself in 5 years?’, ’What is your life’s purpose?’, or ‘What is it that makes you happy?’. We often make the mistake of thinking that everyone who is struggling is having the same issues as we had that one time. We might get directed to Ted Talks that mean a lot to the person suggesting it but seem very obvious to us, or someone might buy us a copy of The Secret. We’re all different and learn our lessons at different times, and there’s no one solution for feeling out of sync, or we’d all have already done it.
Saying that in five years time you’d like to be in a West End show or running your own incredibly successful contemporary art gallery in Mayfair isn’t helpful, because even if it’s not completely unrealistic, it relies on far too many factors that you can’t control. The same goes for falling in love and getting married. Asking someone what makes them happy is not a helpful retrieval question when their response is to shout ‘Pizza’ at you. That having been said, I have a friend who loves pizza and has spent the last five years running Napoli style pizza restaurants. She is incredibly fulfilled and even has a pizza tattoo on her ankle.
Of all of the questions, I remember being asked, ‘What is your life’s purpose?’ is the most annoying. To me, it’s arrogant to assume that anyone has a purpose, and is suggestive of the idea that the speaker knows the meaning of life, and if they do they’d save us all a lot of angst by sharing it. I get into a panic particularly when people ask me what I do, ’Erm, well, I have 5 jobs at the moment, unless you count the unpaid projects I’m working on and then it’s more’. I caught myself saying this recently, and I wondered whether the gaping feeling I sometimes get in my chest was to do with me not really deciding on a particular path? Have I wasted my 20s refusing to make a decision about who I am?
I trained as an actor, and when I graduated, after working in a restaurant part-time since I was 14, I decided that I wouldn’t be one of those actors who worked a job that they hate in order to carry on being an actor. So I took other seeming eclectic freelance jobs, hoping that one day I’d find that thing that paid the bills and allowed me to go off on semi-glamorous theatre tours around the UK. I did and still do a lot of writing, I worked in front-of-house management, I was a copywriter, an art gallery assistant and a singer in a band. I worked for a magazine, I worked as a producer, a dramaturge and even a runner on film sets. Now my main day job is teaching Shakespeare to students and storytelling.
No matter how well we do, it's always possible to doubt ourselves and our choices. Who is to define what success is, and who has ever really experienced something where the gratification of 'success' doesn't eventually decay and leave us just as vulnerable to self- doubt and angst as we ever were? Success in its modern context can't fulfil us. The buzz you get from being celebrated doesn't last. Creativity in whatever role you play can fulfil us, and doing something because you feel it's worthwhile can too.
If you have too many interests does that mean you’re forever doomed to be a jack of all trades and master of none? Aimlessly wandering from one glorified entry level position to the next, doomed to work temp contracts with no real purpose or understanding of where anything is leading you? You’re either in the middle of the river going full speed ahead or holding on to the sides, whilst floating slowly down the stream, never wanting to jump so far into a path that you can’t get out and try something else.
Someone asked me a question the other day that I found profoundly useful. They said, ‘Who are you and what do you do? But don’t tell me what you do for a living. What is it that you do?’ I thought for a moment, desperately trying not to think about what answer would get me more work. I entertain? No. That’s what I’m good at but that’s not why I do it. I am the vessel for other people’s words? Aptly poetic but not quite right either as I write stories too, and sometimes I just help other people tell theirs. I tell stories. I am a storyteller. Everything I’ve done (bar my glittering career as a supervisor in a nightclub on Brighton seafront) has been to tell, or aid in telling stories.
I have an actor friend who loves performing but is also an activist within the arts, and feels just as passionately about equal representation for female and BAME artists, about creating role models for minority audiences, and about fuelling what she does with that fire. I also have a friend who was on the way to becoming a big shot theatre producer but gave it all up to study anthropology and become a Steiner teacher because, like me, she believes that stories can be shared in many ways.
I’m a storyteller. I believe that stories can change the world and that stories help us learn about what it is to be human, and that stories make us human. I don't own a dog or a house but that's OK, and when I do I know exactly how I will decorate it. Who are you?
Kate-Lois Elliott is an actor and writer. She has worked at XYZ Magazine Brighton and Mouth London. Kate was the assistant editor for The Shapers Project book with The Creative Society, Jazz FM and Mishcon De Reya, has had her short fiction read out on Wandsworth Radio/Either-Author and had her work staged at Theatre 503. She regularly champions first time playwrights with her company Backbone Theatre, who run workshops and readings at London venues. Past Backbone productions have played at the Roundhouse, The Bush Theatre and the Blue Elephant Theatre, Camberwell. (Spotlight: 2212-9084-8035). http://www.kateloiselliott.com/
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