With hindsight, the confusion my old acquaintance experienced outside the coffee shop seems understandable. To reject, so resoundingly, all the signifiers of happiness and success can be unsettling to observers. But still, my decision to walk away from the life I had built remains something of which I am proud. It was turbulent, and it was terrible, and I regret the hurt that was caused, but it was also the making of me.
In recent years, books written by authors who chose to do something similar – taking a sharp left in their lives, where most might turn right – have become something of a genre. Loosely, these memoirs tend to fall into two categories. The first presents the writer with little left to lose – Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 bestseller, Wild, for instance, in which the US author hiked the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail solo, following divorce, drug addiction and the death of her mother. Similarly, in Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, Winn and her husband walk the South West Coast Path in the UK, shortly after he is diagnosed with a terminal illness and the pair find themselves homeless following a bad investment. Or there’s Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, in which the author’s alcoholism leads her to abandon life in London and return to her native Orkney to begin again in the landscape she once fled.
In a similar vein, this spring we’ve seen the publication of Doreen Cunningham’s Soundings, in which the author and her young son follow the grey whale migration path up to northern Alaska. For Cunningham, like Winn and Liptrot, life has hit an all‑time low: single parenthood has left her isolated, financially challenged and at a loss as to how her life ended up this way. The trip north is a nature study, and a way to understand parenthood, but it is also an attempt by Cunningham to reconnect with her younger self.
This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon – it is close to 170 years since Henry David Thoreau “went to the woods” because he “wanted to live deliberately” and wrote about it in Walden. At the heart of such stories is the question of what happens when life is stripped back to its bare bones. How much do we need to survive, how do we rise to the challenge, and who are we at heart, without all of life’s paraphernalia?
A second strand of today’s “life change” genre follows authors who were roused from steady lives – who abandoned careers, took up new pursuits and rooted themselves in unexpected places hoping to find Thoreau’s more “deliberate” way of living. Elizabeth Gilbert’s post-divorce travel memoir, Eat Pray Love, might be the blousiest example. Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun, Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly, Shonda Rhimes’s Year of Yes and Glennon Doyle’s Untamed all plough a similar furrow. Among this year’s crop are Deer Man, the story of photographer and lecturer Geoffroy Delorme, who moves to a forest in Normandy to live among roe deer, and The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick, whose near-death experience at 33 prompts her to begin life afresh.
These recent books have taken on new resonance. The pandemic has encouraged many to perform an emotional audit of their lives; with a break from entrenched routine has come a recalibration of work and home, a recognition that life is perhaps too short to spend doing something you do not love. Last year Anthony Klotz, a professor at Mays Business School in Texas, coined the phrase “the Great Resignation” when predicting the huge number of workers likely to quit their jobs. In the UK, that was one in 20 of us, but the phenomenon has been global – last November, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that “quits”, as they are termed, had hit a record high, as 4.5 million American workers voluntarily left their jobs.
There are of course many reasons for this grand walkout, ranging from health concerns to childcare needs. But it appears a striking number of people left their jobs with no plan to seek employment in the same sector, instead choosing wholly new lifestyles and careers. It makes sense that these memoirs should flourish in this context; those contemplating a radical life-change perhaps seeking inspiration – or the steadying hand of a cautionary tale.
There is both to be found in Ben Short’s April memoir, Burn. Short walked away from his role as a creative director for a London advertising company, along with all its desirable trappings (the flat, the fancy motorbike, the glamorous business trips), to work on the land – living, coppicing, hedge-laying and charcoal-burning in Dorset. “I came to the woods over a decade ago,” he writes. “I came to the woods because there was a fire in my head.”
“I was deeply unhappy,” he says today. “Beset by anxiety and stifled and frustrated by a career which was supposed to be creative but often felt anything but.” Raised in rural Hampshire, he found that after 16 years in London the pace of the city had begun to pall. “I yearned for a deeper, slower and more ‘useful’ existence.”
Short’s decision to rip it up and start again was not only rooted in frustration, it was also a way to address his crippling obsessive compulsive disorder. “The illness was not a lot of fun,” he says. “It basically took [away] a decade of my life. That said, it did give me a rocket-fuelled impetus to leave my career. I have been told many times that it was a brave move, but it had nothing to do with courage. It was a matter of survival. Had I done nothing, my existence would have been incredibly small and miserable and I was not prepared to live like that.”
In one memorable scene, Short recalls the point where it became apparent that he must change his life. He is on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, pitching for a new advertising account, when he suffers an acute anxiety attack. “I felt like a boxer who had been knocked down a million times,” he writes, “yet staggered back to his feet and was floored again in a bout lasting years. Inside I was pulp.”
In this form of memoir, immersion in nature is often presented as a salve – see also Caroline Van Hemert’s account of a trek across Alaska in The Sun Is a Compass, Jon Krakauer’s biography of Chris McCandless, Into the Wild, or Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man, about Eustace Conway, who in 1977 moved from suburbia to the Appalachian mountains.
The idea of abandoning modern life in favour of something more traditional has long appealed to the disillusioned wage slave; there was the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 70s, for instance. But the reality of manual labour after decades of deskbound life can be challenging, and rural life a rude awakening after the ready comforts of urban living. “I’m very much a romantic by nature, so yes, there was an element of that,” Short concedes.
“Living in the woods did, initially, feel quite extreme. But I got used to the new rhythms and demands of living off-grid and grew to love them. I learned that when one’s life is reduced to the basics – boiling water over a wood stove, hauling one’s water from a well, washing in a tin bath – those tasks become rewarding in themselves.”
It was a similar experience for Siri Helle, author of Handmade: Learning the Art of Chainsaw Mindfulness in a Norwegian Wood, published in March. Some years ago, Helle inherited a plot of land and a red-and-white-painted log cabin, without water or electricity. When she set herself the task of building a privy, she found a new sense of purpose.
Since her late teens, Helle had led an unsettled life – she had moved 30 times in 20 years, made a few attempts at university, lived overseas, but found herself too restless to stick at anything. She was at agricultural college, studying to be an agronomist (a course she did in fact see through), when she first encountered the chainsaw. “Someone just put it in my hands. And then when I came back to my cabin and I saw all the spruce trees my grandfather had planted, I realised it was the perfect tool for me. It sort of became clear to me that I could do it, or that I should at least try.”
It was not easy. “All the challenges in the construction, I had to handle them somehow,” she remembers. “And sometimes I handled them by just throwing the tools aside and going for a long walk, and then I came back the next day and found a solution. But I think that can be a good mantra: it’s just starting and trying. And the first hour is always going to be the most difficult one.”
Like Short, Helle admits to harbouring some romanticism about the idea of working outside in a traditional job. “But of course it’s really difficult, and there are so many things to learn,” she says.
Still, the rewards can be vast. “When I discovered that the manual labour and the creative challenges could be so fulfilling – that was life-changing. It gave me a feeling of accomplishment. I get it from writing as well, but it’s different to getting it from something that’s completely physical – and that’s needed.” Today, Helle divides her time between work as a carpenter and as a writer, and says they make excellent bedfellows. “The division between working with your hands and working with your head is really one of the most stupid divisions we make in society,” she says. “Because it’s not possible to work with your hands without also using your head.” Throughout a lifetime of work, she feels we should be able to choose any number of careers that meet our different needs, talents and interests, and sometimes to pursue them in tandem. “I think it’s very hard to demand we should choose just one path,” Helle says.
“If you want to be a blacksmith or a carpenter, go try it!” says Bill Burnett, co-author (with Dave Evans) of Designing Your New Work Life. “Maybe you will love it.” Burnett is executive director of the design programme at Stanford University in California and his approach to making a big life change is, accordingly, design-led. Most quitters leave a job because they hate it, rather than because they have the promise of something better – Burnett refers to this as “running away from a bad thing”, as opposed to “running toward a good thing”. This rarely works out well, he says. “What we tell people is: it’s very dangerous to just throw everything up in the air, quit your job, and try to figure it out. Because there are bills to pay.”
A former Apple employee, Burnett encourages considering your career the same way one might design a new piece of tech. “What do you do when you want to build a new product? You build a lot of prototypes,” he says. “And you try a lot of experiments to see what’s going to work. I knew some guys on the iPhone team, and they brought three different prototypes to Steve [Jobs], and three times Steve said: ‘Nah, that’s not good enough, do it again, do it again.’” If you follow the prototype approach, you’ll road-test your new career before you quit your job in the bank; it might be an idea to spend some of your free time at the circus,maybe take a few classes. Perhaps you’ll even acknowledge that sometimes it’s OK to keep trapeze artistry as a hobby.Burnett often holds workshops for mid-career executives. “Who’s miserable?” he will ask the group. “And you know who raises their hands? Lawyers, bankers, private equity people, folks making lots and lots of money.” It’s the same story every time, he says: a partner in a law firm, making a tonne of money, a house in Manhattan, a house on Long Island, two Teslas, kids in private school. “And they say: ‘I hate my job and I hate my life.’” So Burnett will ask them: how did you get here? And reliably they will answer him: “I never asked myself the question: is this what I wanted?”
“We don’t have this conversation in our culture,” he says, “and it’s a shame. So part of the ‘life design’ idea is getting clear on what you want. And recognising that that changes all the time. It’s ok to keep wanting things.”
Lucy Leonelli was some way into a career in recruitment and in her late 20s when she had the nagging feeling that “it was never really what I wanted to do,” she says. The first person from her family to attend university, after graduation, like all her peers, she had moved to London and embarked on a white collar career.
“I was having a good time, and doing well, and succeeding, but I wasn’t living the truest version of myself.” She began to think about the person she’d been before corporate life. “I had quite a wide array of hobbies, and different kinds of people that I spent time with,” she says. “There was more colour in my life. I acted in pantomimes, I was a goth, I hung out with skaters and I rode horses. I was part of all these different worlds.”
Rather than walk out entirely on her career, she negotiated taking a gap year from her job, using the time to explore a range of other lifestyles and write a book about her experiences. A Year in the Life: Adventures in British Subcultures, which came out in January, is a nimble A-Z of different avenues – there are Essex girls, fetishists, LARPists (people who take part in live-action role-playing games) and vampires; there is a rollercoaster ride with a group of naturists.
“I needed to have a way of it being productive in some way,” Leonelli says, of setting herself this rather exaggerated version of Burnett’s prototype task. “Writing a book meant having something to show for the year, and having a focus was really important,” she says. It also helped her to explain what she was doing to those who thought taking time off from an ascendent career would be a mistake.
“The question, ‘What’s this going to do to your career?’ came up a lot,” she says. “But I think the idea of a career is shifting. The idea of the episodic career is becoming increasingly relevant. I work in recruiting, and I see people having sabbaticals a lot more now than at the beginning of my career.”
Leonelli did return to her previous field, but she believes her year of exploration helped her enormously – she has fewer prejudices now, an openness to new situations and a ready confidence that meant that six years ago she had no qualms about relocating to California. “If I hate it,” she reasoned, “I can always go back. Though I know that’s a privilege.”
Sometimes, though, the knowledge that you can’t really go back is an important part of changing your life. I did not go back to my office job. I did not return to my marriage or my home. For a long time I lived in the state of nothing, trying to work out who I was, and how I wanted to live. I think, if we are lucky, all of us are given a moment to question the narrative of our lives. To wonder whether where we find ourselves is the result of our own choices, or of convention and others’ expectations.
When this moment arrived for me, I’m glad that I took it. There have been many such moments since; new expansions in my career, time spent overseas, a period when I left London and later returned – decisions that might have seemed bewildering to others. But each time these moments come, I tell myself to take them. I tell myself to go into the woods. I tell myself to live more deliberately.