For a little while I have been thinking about Katherine Soper, who won the Bruntwood prize for her play; how much was made of the fact that she worked behind a perfume counter. As if she came from nowhere. As if – indeed – working in a shop or a cafe might as well be ‘nowhere’; the assumption that nobody would be doing that job if they had anything else going on in their lives. That nobody with stuff going on in their lives chooses to do that job.
I work in a deli now. I do it because it helps me write my novel. Recently I told somebody (a near-stranger) that this is what I’m doing, and he explained to me very kindly and knowledgeably that I’d never get anywhere with it. And yes, of course I smiled and moved on, because I know that being behind a counter makes all of my other qualities invisible.
I chose this, but even so I find it mentally quite tough not to be chasing a traditional career, and I hesitate when people ask me what I do. I expect them to tell me I am wrong. Being on that MA gave me fabulous authority, hanging out with Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood, being Proper. I could tell people and they would be impressed, yes, she is doing a Real Thing, that is definitely legit. Now I have finished studying, and serve coffee instead, my authority is more or less stripped from me: my writing is pie-in-the-sky at best.
I have done minimum-waged customer-facing jobs for many years – I’ve written about it before – and so often come across people who assume that because I am in a uniform I am worth nothing. Quite a few year ago, when I worked in museums, one visitor’s contempt and aggression reduced me to tears: my colleague – who, without his lanyard, was an extremely well-respected poet – took me by the shoulders and said, he doesn’t know you. He doesn’t know who you are. And I held onto that for a long time. When people were rude to me, I buttoned my lip and thought, they would not be treating me like this if they knew me, if they knew what I was doing. And they wouldn’t, of course; I have met that sort of person since, in other situations, and they think I’m the cat’s whiskers. A lovely white middle-class girl writer, how charming. But that isn’t really good enough. They shouldn’t make such assumptions about anybody. There are a million reasons people do jobs like mine, not least because the British economy is service-based and these are the jobs that are going. The arts don’t pay. These low-skilled public-facing jobs are how the makers of the future manage to make anything at all.
But I am a bit tired of going stealth. And as we all know, writing is not really a spectator sport. I know that I have written eighty-thousand decent words, but to the person on the other side of the till I am the machine that pours their latte. I know that writing makes me tick, makes me most myself right now, but I do it alone at the dining-room table and nobody else is there to see it. What they see me do is Dettox the cheese-cutter.
I get better at smiling and moving on because I know that even if I end up successful as a writer (nb my definition of ‘writing success’ is not the same as the layman’s definition, which is JK Rowling or bust), I might always be stealth. I’ll always have to do jobs like this one to support the stuff I really care about.
So I am trying to adopt a double-pronged approach, which goes thusly:
- Declare myself to as many customers as possible. Let them know I am a writer, an intelligent person probably like the ones their promising kids go to uni with. Tell them about my life and what I do. Let them see that writers can be waitresses, and waitresses can be writers.
- If they assume I’m a moron, don’t sweat it. Just smile and repeat in my head:
Eighty thousand words and counting
MA with distinction
Malcolm Bradbury Scholarship
Curtis Brown Dissertation Prize
Shortlisted for the MsLexia First Novel Prize 2015 (winner TBC).