A close colleague announced her retirement from work the other day. Aside from the fact that she's a lovely person and will be sorely missed, she's also due to leave in the middle of a big project that she's masterminded. Luckily, I work in a large, well-resourced company, so covering her role for the remainder of the project won't be a logistical problem. But I thought it was a shame for her to be going without seeing the project through. Would she be left with a feeling of unfinished business?
Writing, too, has these questions of completion. We can never know when we might be hit by a bus, have a stroke or suffer writer's block so debilitating that it turns us into the next J.D. Salinger. Sometimes we'll put a difficult book down for too long and the moment is lost – it's impossible to resume writing it because you've become a different person in the meantime. There are all those terrible "what if" questions as well. What if I'd started writing earlier? What if that book had got through acquisitions?
I found myself reflecting on my own career so far – both in writing and publishing – and wondering about where it goes next. Preparing for my appraisal recently, I was pulled up short by the question "What would you like your legacy at OUP to be?" This is the first company I've worked for that has had enough of a history to prevent that question sounding preposterous, and I'd never considered "my legacy" before. Barring any of the bad things mentioned above, I have maybe 30 years left before I retire – what should I be looking to do with them? (I have voiced the idea that I never want to retire at all, but I also know that ill health has a habit of forcing your hand)
Is a "life well-lived" one in which we achieve all our goals and die satisfied, or one in which we're constantly pushing ourselves and striving to reach the next level? I have to lean towards the latter, if only because the days of our life are so long and the moments of regret at the end comparatively short. But there's also a balance, because we can spend so long pushing towards the next milepost that we forget to celebrate passing the last.
The more I thought about these issues, the more I could see a continuum in what we do. In both life and work, we join the timeline at a certain point, make our contribution and then depart. There is history before us and what will become history to follow. So in that sense, nothing is ever really finished. Certainly, when considering books or dictionary applications there will always be corrections and changes, new editions and new formats. Though my colleague is leaving, her work will live on for a long time. Let's hope that's true of all of us.