I spent my summer of 2018 happy in the knowledge that I had a job lined up – a good one – for three months in London, and that the rest of my life would go from there. Every stage of my experience up until then had been mapped out, hopping and studying from one summer holiday to the next, always with something to expect come September. Last year however, September came with an apologetic email and a sudden empty space ahead of me. For the first time, I had no ‘next step’. I was standing on the edge of an abyss, winded by the realisation that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, no grand career plans. I had always brushed the question aside with the assertion that I didn’t want to fritter my precious degree away by worrying about jobs. I would think about that when I graduated. And suddenly, there I was.
Now, this all sounds very dramatic, and it’s all true – but it’s also true that within half an hour of receiving that shitty email cancelling my cushy graduate plans, I had more or less decided that I belonged in publishing. I always told people that whatever place I would find in the adult world was destined to have something to do with words, and why the idea of publishing hadn’t surfaced before then I have no idea – perhaps an assumption that I wasn’t qualified for it, or that I would never be able to battle my way into it. I genuinely couldn’t remember considering the option before, despite being surrounded by books for most of my life, and every minute of my degree. It must have been lurking somewhere in the background, however, because as soon as I turned the thought over in my optimistic, newly-graduated mind, I thought, why the hell not? And so began the long and determined attempt to wiggle my way into the publishing world.
I spent those first months poring over big-shot internships in London, fantasizing over vacancies in the top literary agencies, and thinking that some lucky odd jobs doing readers’ reports for a tiny press meant I was already on my way to success. But by January I had realised two things: firstly, that the publishing industry was huge and vast and varied, and secondly – that I knew almost nothing about it. And that was okay. I couldn’t expect to be able to dive straight in, or that my love of books and words were the only qualifications I might need. It’s true that my skills and interests are suited to lots of areas of publishing, but so early on it was very necessary for me to admit that I still didn’t really understand what those areas were. I stepped back from applications and daydreams, and accepted – with as much grace as I could muster – that I was at square one. First and foremost, I needed to learn.
The first thing I did was consider my contacts. Being from a rather sciencey family, I had almost none there. The only person I could think of was a tentative link in the theatre industry, but with optimism I picked up the phone and tried. Looking back, that conversation was the real beginning of it all, because I left with the most fruitful advice I’ve ever received. Be cheeky. Email people, call them even – you don’t need an acquaintance you just need the courage. Ask for help, for wisdom, for whatever information you can get. Don’t ask for jobs or favours – just a small slice of their time, and a new suggested person to approach. From there, she told me, good things will come. And they really did.
By February, I had met with two publishing directors, each of whom had set up their own presses in South Wales. I had turned my attention away from the Big Smoke, and I was happily learning all I could from the small-scale, oh-so-friendly Welsh publishing scene. Since then, I’ve gained more insight and experience than I ever expected in my brief time back at home, and I owe all of that to the people I met. Since setting my heart on publishing, everything I have on my CV has been a result of emails, conversations, and good impressions – none of it applications.
By the end of February I also had an offer to study Creative Writing as a postgraduate at the University of Manchester. Even though I had something to aspire to by then, having that empty space ahead of me was still hard. I had been ahead of myself before: having a good degree wasn’t enough and if I was to be successful in this, my ‘education’ was far from over. I had known I would do a Creative Writing MA perhaps a number of years down the line, but it suddenly now was actually the time. I would gain skills from this degree that were essential to editing and understanding the creative industry, and more than anything I would gain time. I could keep delving into the publishing world, gaining experience, building connections, and without the exhausting restaurant shifts or looming pressure to find a full time job. I have the massive privilege of being given the chance to try for a career I care about, and I didn’t want to waste it with a knee-jerk reaction into a job I didn’t like. Time was what I needed, for a number of reasons.
A Creative Writing MA would also allow me to write. I’m not optimistic enough (or mad enough) to expect a full-time writing career, but why not pursue two things at once? For me, writing and publishing are so strongly intertwined, so reliant on each other, that it seems obvious for an understanding of one to strengthen skill in the other. This MA will give me the space to learn how to take writing seriously, which is difficult in a world which, though we need writers as much as we need mathematicians, insists on making it make-believe. You need monumental confidence in your own abilities to tell a room that you want to be a writer – and to ignore the sniggers, the slow-motion attempts at polite responses. I recently took part in an ‘Emerging Writers’ residential course. It was incredible, I left buoyed-up with hope and ideas, and whilst there – without even thinking much about it – I referred to myself as a writer for the first time. I am a writer. And so I want to spend a year writing. When else can it be on the top of my to-do list for 12 whole months? I want a space which gives me permission to take writing seriously, and not only that, but expects me to do so.
I spent this summer looking forward to the ‘next step’, but this time it was a step I had entirely chosen for myself. This step is all mine, my decision, non-compulsory but completely necessary. I’ve worked hard so I can be here, and I’m not wasting a minute of it. I spent this summer worrying that I won’t be good enough, that I won’t be able to write enough, that I’ll realise this is all unrealistic and that my standard isn’t actually very high. But I also spent this past summer humming with a quiet determination, full with excitement. It’s true that writing requires some measure of arrogance in your own abilities – putting pen to paper is almost impossible unless you believe it’s worth something. Just after moving to Manchester I found out that my first story is going to be published in an anthology. Tomorrow I officially start my classes in Creative Writing. And quite frankly, I can’t wait to get started.