On becoming a writer: Part One (of many)

Perhaps careers offices have changed since the late Eighties.  When I was at school, not one of the folders on display contained a single job I could imagine doing.  Was this because it was a girls’ school, so, swotty and over-achieving as we strove to be, we were encouraged to do the less showy, more supportive, aspects of even the most demanding jobs: solicitors, not barristers; health visitors, not surgeons; primary school teachers, not professors; caterers, not chefs?  The highlight of our careers guidance was filling in a computerised questionnaire on the school’s only computer.  Did we like boats?  Did we like working with our hands?  Then, excitingly, we received a print-out of our optimum profession.

I was to work in road haulage. 

Inexplicably, I rejected this.  I loved books, found the very idea of authors thrilling: publishing was unavoidable.  After nine weeks of work experience at a now defunct major publisher, inhaling lungs-full of Spray Mount, hiding mis-photocopied cuttings in out-of-the-way bins, spending lonely lunch breaks roaming the dead residential streets of Chelsea wishing for a shop (no one had told me about the King’s Road) I was given a job.  My starting salary was £9,000, and my joy was limitless.

In time the thrill did pall, a little. After three years of extreme parsimony I flirted with becoming a lawyer.  I was argumentative; I could read; what other skills could I possibly need?

But my initial attempts to read the most basic legal textbooks ended, swiftly, in sleep and, although I applied for a place on a law conversion course, by the time September arrived I worried that, after all, law wasn’t for me.  Perhaps, at least for the time being, 40 hours a week of comma-checking was marginally less bad than An Introduction to Roman Law.  Besides, I couldn’t see myself as either a barrister (insufficiently male, posh or confident) or a solicitor (not very obedient, terrible memory, unwilling to hand the fun showy-off bits over to a barrister).  So, out of cowardice, I decided to defer until the following year; by then, surely, I’d be mature and financially sensible enough to commit to a proper career.

The year passed.  My job became slightly more interesting: I went to Frome to take minutes at an editorial session with the elderly Anthony Powell; I cowered discreetly in the boardroom during a fiction prize-judging discussion involving, mysteriously, Ken Livingston; I discussed the syntactical wishes of a famously tricky writer with the writer’s partner, who came to the meeting instead.  And the following October I was sitting at my desk when a horrible thought suddenly struck me:

I had forgotten to go to law school.

So I stayed in publishing, and thank God for that.  I graduated to copy-editing full-time: the short stories of Martin Amis (I never met him); a book about the universe (lovely author; I didn’t understand a word).  And when, by chance, I was moved to an office with a door, I started another job, in my lunch-breaks: writing novels. 

Now I combine the two: publishing in the first half the week, where I spend my days talking to interesting book-loving people, and writing in the second, where I worry about what the people in the first half of the week will think of my sentence construction.  It’s increasingly common for writers, actors and so on to say ‘I’m so lucky’ or, worse, ‘I’m so grateful that this is my job’.  They don’t mean it; they’re usually Americans, being professionally humble.  It’s almost as bad as: ‘she divides her time between Manhattan and Vermont.’  But, by good fortune, and effort, my life is books, and frankly it’s all I’m fit for. I am lucky.  And so is the legal profession.