Following the publication of my debut novel, That Summer in Puglia, I’m regularly asked how I made the transition from a career in management to one in writing. The question may come from a reader at a book signing or in a message via social media; those asking it typically work in a business role and tell me they’ve always loved to write.
This post is not an attempt at an exhaustive answer, which would defeat me. Instead, I hope it will provide some helpful points to consider. My reflections have been sparked by a recent event, the Sloan Summit at London Business School to celebrate 50 years of the Sloan MSc Programme there. At the Summit, leadership and change expert Alison Haig-Davies interviewed Gillian Keegan MP and me about our paths to career transformation. All three of us are graduates of the Sloan MSc in Management at London Business School (the course is also available at MIT and Stanford), though from different years. While my fellow speaker’s activity is not in the arts, the points below about self-knowledge, humility, serendipity, resilience and gratitude were vital to both of us, so I hope they’ll be valuable to others.
- Career or vocation?
With writing, are we talking of a career at all? Most published writers do not earn enough from their books for that to be their only activity. Many hold other jobs: as teachers and critics, for example, but also in very different areas. I write literary fiction and for me that has the compelling nature of the vocation. I’m also a literary and opera reviewer, a creative-writing teacher and a board member of an arts festival.
Consider what the true constants in your life are: the ones which feel ‘deeply you’. For me these include a combination of artistic creativity and structured thinking, and a lifelong love of the arts. My roles in management involved mostly strategy and organisational behaviour work (both disciplines require more creative thinking than many realise, and lots of writing); and I grew up in a family steeped in the arts (my mother an art historian, my father an art dealer), so they always remained an active passion.
I’m one of countless people who have always read voraciously and ‘written well’. But I was conscious that there was much to learn, to be able to write novels: every profession takes years of study and practice. So I started out by attending a no-pressure creative writing course once a week for some months. The feedback was encouraging and I continued drafting short stories and taking part in a writing group. Eventually, I had a portfolio of fiction, on the strength of which I was admitted to the Goldsmiths MA in Creative & Life Writing. I felt that an MA was the most effective way for me to move up the learning curve. At that point I had no expectations about where it would lead – I embarked on it because I really loved writing stories and wanted to be able to communicate what I deeply care about to the best of my ability. I also trusted in the power of serendipity: you do your utmost to be good at what you’ve chosen and when opportunities present themselves you’ll be ready to embrace them.
I accepted from the outset that it’s difficult to get traditionally published and that rejections of my manuscript were to be expected in the process of finding ‘a home’ for it – and that it was quite possible it wouldn’t. But even before then – in the course of writing the novel – I had to be open to others’ constructive criticism: being defensive about your work (whatever your field) doesn’t do much to improve it. I also assumed that writing the kind of literary novels I had in mind, and getting published, would take years – and it did.
The process I’ve described requires being sustained by others at different junctures and in a variety of ways. I’m sure that writers convinced of their own genius must exist somewhere – lucky them…! Most of us might instead give up along the way, were it not for the belief in us by those whose judgement we trust: in my case, a couple of friends well versed in literature and philosophy, tutors on the MA, fellow MA students… My writing group, composed of other Goldsmiths graduates, has been and is invaluable: we workshop our pieces in an atmosphere of mutual trust, and have become close friends. And what to say of the generosity of the writers and film director who endorsed the novel? And how about the friends and family whose support takes many forms? And the publisher who made the book ‘happen’? And the authors and journalists who compèred the debut events? This might give you a sense of how many people an author is grateful to and for…! At the same time, when you think about it, that holds true for most lives.
I hope the sharing of these thoughts will be helpful to you and to others you may know who are considering a new career – whether in writing or in other realms. To you all, my warmest wishes.
Images courtesy of Sloan Summit 2018 and Mike Pearce of Mike Pearce Photography. Reproduced with kind permission.