The road not taken: Melissa Harrison on why she turned down the dream job of editing a glossy magazine

A high-profile job complete with pension and proper salary – it seemed the perfect next move. So why did I feel such deep disquiet?

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Sometimes, you can know something without knowing it. Only in hindsight do you realise why you might have made the decisions you did.

In my mid- to late-twenties I was working in contract publishing, producing glossy publications for gyms, hotels, high-street pharmacies, luxury retailers and weight-loss organisations. Having overseen the launch of a slick interiors periodical for a chain of estate agents, I was ready for the next step: consumer magazines. I had proved myself a decent staff writer and meticulous sub-editor, and I was on the way to becoming a good commissioning editor. I had it all set.

At this point in my life I wasn’t writing, not even in secret: absolutely nothing at all. The shock of arriving at Oxford, after a crappy (and gappy) comprehensive education, had led me to quash any creative impulses in favour of a new intellectual rigour. Desperate not to be left behind by peers familiar with Latin and Greek, who could debate easily with black-gowned professors who left me mute, I had internalised a deep sense of shame when it came to actually loving literature, let
alone wanting to produce any myself. I would be in my early thirties before the need to write overcame my horror of writing; at this stage it wasn’t part of my plans at all.

So when I was invited to interview for the editorship of a news-stand homes magazine – a high-profile job complete with pension and proper salary – it seemed the perfect next move. I was thrilled and flattered, excited about where it might take me and everything I would learn. The interview went well, and I was invited back for a second one. But on the way there a feeling of deep disquiet came over me, so overwhelming I felt I might panic, or cry. I could find no reason for this unwelcome sense of wrongness, but neither could I ignore it. Perhaps for the first time in my life I managed to listen to my instincts, and – aghast at myself – when offered the position I turned it down.

Not long afterwards I was made redundant, and fell into life as a freelance sub-editor. The experience of working for myself, though initially frightening and unwelcome, proved an excellent grounding for becoming a jobbing writer and, eventually, an author. A pension and job security would be nice, but how glad I am now not to have accepted that offer, or I might never have discovered my true purpose at all.

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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