The Fiction of Business

A student once told me a story which I have been telling everybody ever since. It’s not a ghost tale or about a murder spree – it’s about how he set up his business. Don’t switch off. I know you are tempted to stop reading because any mention of the word business, or targets, or spreadsheets, or strategy has always deadened my day too. Other people feed off competition and innovation in the business world. All I can think about is hideous commutes and too-tight suits.

My student’s story changed all this.

He’d been a musician on the cusp of fame and had burnt out. His wife was an artist and they had no money. They didn’t know what to do to survive. They weren’t going to work for ‘the man’; they too abhorred the idea of commutes and suits. They finally settled on an idea that would definitely earn them money but seemed, on the face of it, to slot them into the role of business people and landlords – the kind of people they had fought so hard not to be.

Their solution was ingenious.

Instead of damning the idea as too staid, a pair of golden handcuffs which would tie them to a dull suburban future, they decided they would take their idea but see it as a sculpture.

A sculpture needs a basic framework to stand but once you have the basics it can be any shape you like. You choose the material, you choose the look, you decide what you want your art to say. Sculptures carry meaning: they have what Glyn Maxwell has called, when referring to poetry, ‘a lunar side’. That is, the work of art gives meaning beyond its physicality – it has what the reader/viewer/listener carries home with them.

My student told me about his business-as-sculpture a few years ago but it has stuck with me. I tell it as a story when other people ask my advice: ‘Maybe instead of seeing it as a problem,’ I say, ‘you could see it as a sculpture you haven’t finished carving yet.’ But, until a few weeks ago, that all it was – a story I told other people. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that I could do the same for my business.

Maybe I wasn’t ready yet.

Maybe I had to wait until a time when I was burnt out and wanted to stop. Thing is, I’d crafted the business over two years and it was managing to survive (thrive even) in lockdown so I couldn’t throw it down. But it’s sturdiness, its heft, was hard for me to carry on my own.

Then I remembered my student’s story. Could I make the business more like a sculpture? Get excited once more if it was a piece of art? I flicked through pictures of Moore’s and Hepworth’s sculptures; Giamatti’s and Angelo’s. None seemed to quite fit as a metaphor for my business.

Of course they didn’t: I am a writer and my company is about the word in all its forms.

I would make my company like a novel – that was what I wanted. A modern novel with a mix of different styles and a strong narrative thrust. And, owing to the thick nature of the novel I wanted to write, I didn’t want to be sole protagonist. I would populate the novel with interesting characters: these might include my students but, as main characters, I wanted other practitioners with different skill sets, people who were neither my mirror or my shadow. I came up with a list of ten strong, interesting people who could carry their own story-line.

I want to tell you more but I can’t just yet. We are only beginning to build our narrative. Like all good stories, I expect there will be trials and tribulations but I have already planned a happy ending. This story, like the best of stories, will make a difference to people’s lives… and if it doesn’t, I hope, at least, the book we create together will be a page turner, an escape from the everyday, a chance for the body to breathe, something which shows us something new; something which connects us all.

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