What do you do with a BA in English?

Avenue Q. Just don’t take the kids.

…What is my life going to be?, as the Avenue Q song goes. It could have been written for me. In my case, the ‘useless degree’ was in Modern Languages – don’t get AP started on my stubborn refusal inability to speak German after four years immersed in the finer points of its grammar and syntax (not to mention the six months in Germany, immersed in its beer). Still, the principle’s the same: Ten years on from graduation (gosh, ten years!) I still have no real idea where my career is heading.

Like Avenue Q’s callow protagonist, Princeton, I’m on an enduring mission to find my true ‘Purpose’ – except that Princeton is 22 and fresh out of college, while I’m, well, quite a bit older than that, and really should know better. I blame an unholy trinity of personality traits for this career-related angst. My inventory of fatal flaws is as follows: I’m idealistic. I’m a perfectionist. And I think way too much. I agonise over most decisions (you should see me trying to buy breakfast cereal), but when it’s as important a decision as how to spend a significant proportion of your adult life, it becomes a minefield. I’m the first to admit that all this soul-searching is a tad self-indulgent at a time when many people would give their eye teeth for any job at all, but I can’t quite silence the internal monologue: Will it be fulfilling? Is it ethical? Is it creative/mentally stimulating enough? And, of course, the big one: Will it pay the bills?

Aaaaaargh!!!

In the case of my first mini-career, in publishing, the answer to that all-important final question was a resounding “No”. I really liked publishing. There were bits of it I loved: You got to waft around the office in flip flops and a kaftan, for one thing – in fact, the more eccentric your choice of clothing, the better. You got to meet  authors you admired (as well as quite a few others who you thought were overhyped charlatans). You got to attend overseas book fairs and meet other similarly wafty people. The conferences and Christmas parties were fab – the first year I was there, they flew us out to the Adlon hotel in Berlin for a big knees-up with circus performers and the like. And there was my favourite bit: You got free books.

Sorry, Bridget, love – bit out of your price range.

The problem was, I somehow ended up working in Sales. I was a bit rubbish at working in Sales. First off, I had a problem with trying to flog books at minimal discount to African countries that could barely afford food. Then there were the dreaded sales figures – unfortunately numbers and spreadsheets aren’t really my thing. And, as a lowly Sales Assistant, a large part of my job involved lugging boxes of books up and down four narrow flights of stairs because the lift was perpetually broken. The biggie, though –  the thing that ultimately made me leave – was the pay. I’m not massively money-oriented, but it truly was APPALLING. Suffice to say that there’s no way Bridget Jones could have paid the rent on that cute little Borough Market flat on her publishing salary.

At a loss for what to do next, I thought I’d give teaching a go.  A worryingly large number of people told me not to do this. “You can’t be a teacher,” they said, “You don’t like kids!” This is categorically not true; I do like kids, I think kids are fantastic, but I’m not sentimental about them. As I see it, this is actually a useful quality in a teacher –  if I went all gooey over the kids I taught, I’ve had brought so many of them home by now that I’d be putting Brangelina to shame. Anyway, teaching certainly ticks all of the ‘meaningful and rewarding’ boxes – choreographing thirty overexcited six-year-olds in sheep costumes for the annual Nativity play can be surprisingly fulfilling (as well as unbelievably stressful). And kids are great for a bit of validation – they say nice things like, “You have good hair” and “That’s a pretty dress” and, occasionally, “I love you” (often accidentally followed by “Mum”, and usually, in my experience, immediately after you’ve given them extra Golden Time). Once in a while, you may even get them to learn something. Plus, despite Michael Gove’s best efforts; in spite of all of the lesson plans, work scrutinies and target setting, there’s still scope for the odd bit of creativity.

Sure, they’re adorable. But just you try getting them all to go in the same direction at the same time!

Teaching has its downside too, of course – it’s not all about inspiring young minds. Having accidentally ended up teaching Year 1, a lot of it was about reminding the little darlings to use a tissue, feigning interest in someone’s extensive Ben 10 sticker collection during mind-numbing Show and Tell sessions, and saying “Make sure you’ve done a poo and a wee!” at opportune moments, as captured scarily accurately in the film Nativity!. (As it happens, one of my old TAs was exactly like Mr Poppy. Watch the clip below, and you’ll see why this was Not A Good Thing.) At the other end of the primary scale, in Year 6, it’s often about picking the right moment to point out the merits of deodorant, and explaining why writing about the time your pit bull attacked an old lady down the local rec probably isn’t the best approach to a SATs  task entitled ‘Our Day at the Park’.

Still, teaching is fun – mostly. So why the ongoing angst? Well, this is where my twin demons of perfectionism and over-thinking kick in, muttering menacingly in my ear like Avenue Q’s twisted Bad Idea Bears. First off, I could never just teach the kids and go home – my ridiculously over-assertive, Jiminy Cricket-style conscience means that I always wanted to make sure all those World’s Best Teacher mugs were totally justified. By the fourth year of pinot noir-fuelled midnight laminating sessions and lost weekends spent writing novella-length comments in the children’s books, AP had had enough. “BUT THEY’RE NOT YOUR KIDS!” he’d shout, exasperated. I had to admit he had a point there. Then there’s the fact that I can’t help feeling there’s something faintly melancholic about the role of teacher as facilitator. I mean (and, yes, I am aware that there is serious over-thinking going on here) it occurs to me that you spend your days as a teacher empowering the next generation to do amazing things that you’re never going to do yourself. I know it’s daft, but all the time I’m spouting the usual teacher platitudes like:“You can be whatever you want to be!” and “Follow your dreams!” and “You’d make a great artist/astronaut/actor/author when you grow up!” I’m thinking “Hang on – I wouldn’t mind doing a couple of those things myself!” And so I thought it was about time I gave one of them – the writing one – a shot.

!

“Write a novel!”
“No, do a Ph.D!”
“Nah, chuck it all in and go travelling!”

I don’t even know if it’s the jobs themselves that scare me, or what the idea of a stable, long-term career represents – namely a settled and predictable existence that seems to beckon in the torpor and complacency of middle-age. The thought of remaining in any job, no matter how amazing, until retirement age terrifies me, as does the thought of defining yourself by your career choice, as in “I’m a _________”.

AP is a little bemused by all this soul-searching, not least because he’s been in the same job for fifteen years. He has two favourite words to describe me: ‘wafty’ and ‘whimsical’. ‘Wafty’ because I’m not always great at prioritising the more mundane aspects of  life (you know, the boring things like credit card bills and car insurance and remembering to buy toilet rolls as well as Waitrose organic chicken forestier pâté), and ‘whimsical’ because I’m prone to off-the-wall ideas. Many a job-themed conversation  has degenerated into an argument because I’ve suggested a possible (though admittedly sometimes slightly fanciful) career path, only to be shot down in flames by AP’s deeply ingrained pragmatism. Here are some recent examples:

I think I’d quite like to be a

  • Wildlife cameraperson: “You do realise this involves hanging around in mosquito-infested swamps, waiting for some near-extinct creature that may or may not grace you with an appearance? With your non-existent attention span? Knowing you, you’ll nod off at the crucial moment, or start playing with your phone just as the Lesser Spotted Doodah or whatever it is finally turns up!”
  • Horticulturalist: “You have to do, like, digging and stuff. You can’t just waft about with a Liberty-print watering can and a Dulux colour chart.”
  • Talking head on Front Row/Newsnight Review (I’m not fussy): “You have to have actually done something to get on there. You can’t just turn up and start going up your own **** for no reason!”       
  • Costume/theatre set designer: “You can’t draw.”

    Won’t be bothering this lot any time soon.

The upshot of this is that I’ve given myself a year. One year to finish the MA, produce a vaguely publishable piece of writing and decide what I want to do with the rest of my life (or at least the next few years). And once that year is over, it’s crunch time – time to make a decision and, hopefully, this time, to stick to it – for as long as my restless spirit will allow. In the meantime, though, I’m quite liking the idea of a Ph.D…

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One thought on “What do you do with a BA in English?

  1. Good luck Zoe! if it’s any comfort many published authors seem to have a long and eclectic job history behind them. And the great thing about writing is that you can actually be a wildlife cameraman, horticulturalist and costume designer…on the page at least.

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