Every two years my old school holds a careers fair. They write to those of their alumni who are known to have careers and invite us to come and tell the boys about what we do. If you arrive early enough, they add, there’s a free lunch.
We come. Those of us who have done this before know that it is fun to do. (We also know that the lunch is quite good.) The lawyers and engineers turn out in truck loads. I am astonished to discover how many different types of engineer it is possible to be. There are doctors, psychiatrists, the armed forces, financial services, gap year excursion organisers, a music agent, a couple of guys from TV companies and a man who is now a most eminent astronomer but whom I know - because I was an accomplice - to have mis-spent much of his school days in Napoleonic wargaming. There is also one author.
(Knowing my school as I do I should have expected a strong team of investment bankers, but for some reason there aren’t any this year. There aren’t any accountants either, which is astonishing. I assume that the bankers are still hiding and that the accountants know where the food is even better.)
The rest of us take up our positions at our little desks around the central atrium and the boys are released into us in batches through a long afternoon. Some of them make a bee-line for a specific career. Most drift uncertainly past the tables. They glance down at the books I’ve scattered on mine to prove that an author is what I really am, and then they drift on again. The trick is to nail one with your eye and start talking. Once you get the first, the crowd forms around you just as if you were a street artist. And you can keep going for as long as you have any voice left.
They’re interested. (Who after all, wants to be a banker? Dad’s a banker and he’s still hiding in the cellar.) And they do quite a lot of writing at this school: mostly short stories, for which there are organised competitions. Some are working on playscripts or even poetry. ‘I’d like to be a writer,’ one says, ‘but my careers adviser says it’s a hobby, not a career.’
Deep breath. This is what I’m here for.
It can be a career, I say. But there are some things you need to know.
And I talk about the money (or lack of it), the security (or lack of it), and maybe also a bit about the odds against any one piece being accepted for publication. I talk about having a regular job, and how far that can be combined with writing, and the differences it made to me when I left the civil service to follow a writing career. ‘Anyone here want to get rich?’ I cry, several times during the afternoon. ‘Then go somewhere else!’ Go and talk to the lawyers and the engineers. The best I can say for myself is that I have a deal on my next book. As an author, I am alive for a little bit longer.
I’m not here to turn anyone off writing. Creative writing is a holy thing, to authors and schools alike. If you enjoy it, if you feel you do it well, then you must go on doing it. But if you want to be an author, take a good look at the Ancient Mariner here. That’s why they’ve given me lunch.