Like the rest of the self-employed, I spent too much of last week doing my tax return for 2008-2009. It's obvious that it's a boring, fiddly job, and almost always in the cause of discovering that you owe them rather more money than you've managed to put by. (Though tax law for writers has some very odd corners, and it's worth poking your nose into them, because it can save you a lot of money, in the future if not now. The Society of Authors has leaflets for all to buy, and a free tax helpline for members). It's very dull, and the temptation is always to skimp it. But although the ordinary risk of not doing it properly is paying a bit more tax than you otherwise might, (which, if you cost your time, might be worth it) in the back of your mind is also the un-ordinary risk that the taxman will decide it's your year for being investigated and, by way of a lot of tedious bits of paper, then discover that you've got it all wrong and owe more than you thought you did, or even that you've been evading tax and are a Bad Person.
But along with the kind of paper-shuffling which is why most of us yearn/ed to be able to give up the day job, rounding up your income and expenses does mean that your life – or at least the year before last – passes willy-nilly before your eyes. This year I was handed a perfect moment: a severe weather warning kept us from leaving London when we'd intended, and if I could get it done and in the post that night, my Christmas was going to be wonderful. So I dragged my eyes from the whirling snowflakes which were the only pale thing visible in the twilight, and back to to the bus tickets (Londoners will share my bafflement as to how you deal with Oyster card payments), the receipts for coffee before a teaching gig, the paper and pens, the postage, a research trip to France (what do you do about receipts in euros, at a completely different and unknown exchange rate from today's?), and my study's share of the household bills, and got on with it. At two in the morning it was done, and 10am we set off for Suffolk, and had a very Happy Christmas: I hope that you did too. The part of Boxing Day I didn't spend reading a terrific biography of Diaghilev, I spent reading my fellow-blogger Damon Young's delightful and thought-provoking Distraction: a philosopher's guide to being free, which was another thing I only gained because we left home a day after we'd planned, so another delivery of post had a chance to arrive.
It was while I was stomping along a frozen track, admiring the black Valenciennes work of bare trees against a mist of frost, that I realised something else. In counterpoint to the general grumpiness about the tax return chore is a small but sastisfying sense of the past being reassembled and then packed away: a readying for the New Year. It's partly a thoroughly Protestant casting up of professional and spiritual accounts: twelve reams of 80gsm paper; eight aspiring writers with reports I so hope helped them; two thick piles of research for the next book, one world imagined, written and published. But it's also a thoroughly Catholic process of confession and absolution: a dreadful electricity bill and eco-guilt but I can't think, let alone write, if I'm too cold; a taxi back from Paddington even though the Tube was still running and so were the buses, but I forgive myself after a sell-out Hay Festival session, and a five hour trip back to London.
Just as we all need distance from our creative work before we can see it whole, transcending the individual peculiarites of the means by which we created it, I wonder if we all need this kind of distance from our lives, looking at the past which each of us creates – beginning, middle and end – as we live it? Apparently the Inland Revenue, as tax authorities go, is unusually merciful in allowing nine months for us to do our sums, but perhaps we should be grateful not just for being able to postpone the job longer than our European confrères can (even if that does mean ruining Christmas instead of a summer holiday), but for the fact that some of the receipts we're looking at are getting on for two years old. It's not just the writer who's trying to earn their living by writing who might want to do an end-of-year tally, but anyone with a large, serious creative project, with its built-in ups and downs. In a society in which most people take it upon themselves to judge both the quick and the dead long before the all-powerful entity of your choice bothers to look your way, it's too easy to see the rotting trees and spindly saplings of the struggle to write, and not the small, coherent shape of the copse which they form. What seemed important – both good and bad – at the time, may not turn out to look that way now. It's not about telling yourself that you 'shouldn't' have been hurt by things which did hurt because they turned out unimportant, any more than you 'shouldn't' be pleased about things which seemed good at the time but didn't grow into something more deserving: what you felt about those things then is as valid as how you feel now about them. You didn't know then which of the straws you hardly noticed would turn out to matter: maybe you still don't. But you did these things, and thoese other things happened to you: you've taken possession of them because they've become part of your past. And maybe one of those straws, blowing almost unnoticed past you at the time, has revealed a wind, either creative or professional, which might just, in the coming year, begin to fill your sails.
And with that thought I hope that you have a very Happy New Year.