An actor, an author, a medical writer, a graphic designer and a film maker walk into a bar. OK, it’s not a bar. That’s later. For now, they walk into an unremarkable 1970s office block, stuffed with cubicles. Each one has a screen, a headset, a phone unit, and a creased crib sheet, tattooed by a hundred bored biroes. This is the market research call centre I worked in for six months in the nineties, and every single person who worked there was doing so to pay their way through training or see them through a fallow period in their real job - nearly all of them in the creative industries.
It was a great place to work, there was always someone to have an interesting conversation with during breaks, always something new to learn from a colleague. But the pay was low and the days went slowly, and as soon as I could, I went back to my usual job as an advertising copywriter.
I was in good company - so many great writers have worked in advertising agencies. Don de Lillo, Salman Rushdie, even, somewhat alarmingly, William Burroughs at one time paid the bills by writing encouragements to buy more stuff. It was soon obvious, though, that while I could combine advertising with the odd bit of freelance journalism, fiction was completely beyond my capabilities after a day of copywriting. I could not manage more than one way of “making things up for a living” at a time. It was as if I had a finite number of sentences, and by 5.30pm I’d exhausted them.
But what else can a writer do to earn a living if not write? Larkin was happy enough (as far as one could tell in his case) to remain a librarian. Many writers teach, especially now a private income is rarely expected and government funding is rarely generous. Rarer is the artist who, like William Letford the roofer/poet, does a manual job by day, transforming into actor/dancer/novelist when the factory whistle blows.
I now write stories, not sales pitches. And I work part time in a supermarket. When I’m at work, I’m submerged in all the everyday tragedies and unthinking heroisms of ordinary people’s lives, the customer request for “adult baby wipes” for a husband with dementia, the pride with which a colleague talks of his disabled daughters. I come into contact with ignorance, kindness, prejudice, decency and straightforward stupidity to a degree I wouldn’t have imagined from my desk in an ad agency.
But, for me, the real benefit is that my tiny spark of writing creativity is no longer bludgeoned and sat upon by my need to use up every scrap of possibility at my day job. I’m not saying that a lurid nylon uniform is the way to creative greatness. But it might be less restrictive than you think.