Friday, 8 March 2013

Unfinished Business

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.



  1. This post is very Michel de Montaigne, good work!

    1. Yeah, I think you're right. I did very much enjoy Saul Frampton's recent book about Montaigne so his philosophy has obviously seeped into my brain!

  2. I think about this a lot. My own mother died when I was very young and I can't bear to think her life was unfinished - yes she was young but she had left a legacy - me and my brother. Whenever I think 'I'll never get published' ( often), I remind myself that the journey is an achievement in itself and if all else fails, so what? I've got two children, a niece and nephew and 4 god-children - my impression on this earth won't die when I do.

  3. Beautiful post, Nick. I think about these questions a lot, maybe as a result of weathering various health crises and knowing any of them could have meant the end of things. I've never found any grand answers, but knowing I have only so much time does help me keep focused on what matters most to me. And I guess it makes me more determined to write the books that only I can write.

  4. What a thoughtful post - it certainly strikes many chords. It can be hard to know what it's important to complete,or when to walk away. Perhaps the best thing is to have no regrets, whatever happens. And enjoy writing, legacy or not.