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12 December 2019updated 26 Jul 2021 4:29am

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

By Melissa Harrison

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.

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