Thursday, May 7, 2020

I'm out and I'm never going back! by Catriona

Most of us - most writers everywhere - do something else first, or do something else alongside. What bits of your other career(s) have you found useful in the business of writing and what bits have you had to ditch?

My first professional ambition, from about 1969-74, was to be a princess and/or fairy and/or angel. I thought they were pretty much the same thing. That willingness to blend fictional and reality still comes in handy every day.

It's an HR free-for-all at the top of the average Christmas tree.
A bit later (mid-70s) I wanted to be a procurator fiscal, like John Sutherland in Sutherland's Law. Of course, I wasn't actually allowed to stay up and watch Sutherland's Law* and I had no idea what a procurator fiscal was; I just loved the way the words sounded. So, really, I wanted to be a writer.

Probably the only tv show to share a name with a dynamic voscosity formula 

* I wasn't allowed to stay up and watch MASH either. Judging by the title sequence, I thought it was a documentary. 

A short bout of banking taught me nothing except that wherever I ended up it should ideally be a long way from banking.

Then came the library years. I worked four summers and two full years in: a windowless dungeon cataloguing genre paperbacks; a Fine Art library, mostly reading; many different branches of lending library, mostly people-watching; and finally a local history department and archive. 

There, in my beloved Edinburgh Room, I spent my days gazing into the eyes of Victorian Edinburghers who'd had daguerrotypes made (Quiet Neighbors); indexing playbills for long-closed theatres (A Spot of Toil and Trouble); cross-indexing photographs of Edwardian street scenes (The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains); and reading page after page after page from the Post Office Directories I was supposed to be shelving, lost in the world of tanners, cart-makers, milliners, tooth-menders, and purveyors of fully-articulated limbs fashioned from finest mahogany and fitted discreetly in your own home (coming soon). The library years taught me, too, that I can put up with just about anything, dungeons included, if there's books.

The last job I had before becoming a writer was in academia. I was a linguistics lecturer for five years at the University of Leeds and then a tutor at the Open University for the next five, before taking the plunge into fiction full-time.

The linguistics is fairly relevant sometimes. I'm Scottish and Dandy Gilver is English, so she and I don't speak the same language. But because I know what I don't know, I do know where to check. I go over the books looking for the word "will", where Dandy would say "shall", likewise "would/should" and all the fun of the subjunctive mood. Nine years of education; you decide if it was worth it. 

Also, I did set As She Left It in Leeds and plonked a lot of university life into Come To Harm

But the switch from study to stories was largely a matter of forgetting about scholarly style and re-learning to write playfully. It took a year to accept that panache was allowed in the prose. 

It took a lot longer to accept that the friendly faces and warm manners of my new writing buddies were for real and not simply another twist in the game of whatever the hell it was they were playing in that soul-suck of an English department. In the end, the main benefit of having done that job is being happy every day that I'm doing this one. 



Pat D said...

When I was 4 or 5 I announced to all that I wanted to be a pickpocket. I had no idea what it was. It just sounded good to me.

Cathi Stoler said...

So glad, you chose to be a writer!
I wanted to be a spy, but there aren't too many female spies from the Bronx.