This week, five writers share the moments that changed their lives, here, Liadan Hynes opens up about the career diversion that shaped her future
Despite having spent most of my life wanting to be a journalist, by the time I actually got around to becoming one, I had all but abandoned this lifelong plan.
From the time I knew what having a job was — specifically, the day Charlie Bird came to our school during careers week in fifth class — I had wanted to be a journalist. I edited the school newspaper (just one issue — up, and then down, in a blaze of glory), and constantly wrote short books at home in the style, or so I imagined, of early PG Wodehouse. Thankfully, these creations have been lost somewhere along the way.
But fear at the prospect of anyone actually reading anything I had written began to creep in. By secondary school, I wanted to curl up and die when an essay of mine was picked to be read out in class.
I went to Trinity, to study English and history. A friend of my parents, himself a journalist, advised an arts degree over a journalism course — “If she can write, she can write; tell her to educate herself” — and so there I was, Freshers Week, repeatedly telling people when asked:
“No, you heard me wrong, I didn’t go to Mount Anville, I went to Mount Temple”, watching the flame of recognition flare up, and then die, in their faces. Connell (of Normal People), I feel you.
I too sat through tutorials in the English department full of hugely confident, loud, glossy people. Unlike Connell, I barely spoke at all. “You got a first?” A classmate enquired, obviously stunned, when our dissertations were returned before finals. I couldn’t blame him, so little had I spoken in class.
I often made my way past the office of the college newspaper, but I never made it in — too intimidated; paralysed at the thought of having to show anyone anything I had written.
By the time college finished, I had all but forgotten my intentions of becoming a journalist.
“It’s not the bit after the Leaving Cert that’s hard, it’s the next step. After college. What then?” Someone said this to me in an interview recently, and I had to smother the urge to leap across the table and hug them. I resisted, opting instead for an overly enthusiastic, slightly startling shout of, “Yes!”
Because it is so true, but so rarely identified. Coming out of school, the next step was clear: go to college. Graduating with a degree in English literature and history, nothing was clear. Even in the middle of the Celtic Tiger, my degree didn’t mean being inundated with job offers. The recruitment agency I signed up for seemed to think receptionist was the only job I should be aiming for.
My mother and I went shopping for an interview suit, and eventually I was offered a job manning the phones at a frozen-food company. It was in the middle of an industrial estate, no roads, and I didn’t drive. Just as my mother and I were weighing up the need for employment against the prospect of dodging massive trucks every morning to get to the office, a friend rang to say she was leaving her college job in a boutique, and did I want to speak to the owner about taking over. It was better paid than the office work I had so far interviewed for. I did. We spoke. I got the job.
Looking back, I see now that it was the perfect early 20s job. It was in the centre of town, surrounded by pubs I would frequent after work with my two co-workers, who became lifelong friends. I was living in Portobello, and we would all pile back to mine after a night out, coming into work the next day together, spending the day propping up each other’s hangovers. The work was fun at times, boring at times, but easy.
When someone offers you the job you have wanted all your life, you find it within yourself to get over your fear, and simply say, “Yes, please, thank you”
Looking back, I can’t believe I was only 22. At that time, it felt like you were only allowed a certain number of steps in the process of setting up a career — make the wrong move, linger too long in a dead end, and it was all over. I felt that whatever I did next was all-important, there would be no going back, no second chances. If you weren’t on the career path by, at the latest, 24, well, you were finished.
I think that kind of stress was partly why I started making the job in the boutique into a career path — it was a desperate need to inject meaning into it. Because otherwise, the next step seems incomprehensible.
Journalism aspirations entirely abandoned, I hung on in the boutique, even after both best friends had moved on. I became manager, then buyer. Before I knew it, I’d applied for a master’s in fashion buying at the London College of Fashion, been accepted (despite a disastrous moment in the interview where I had to confess to not knowing who Sir Philip Green was), and was moving to London.
And then, two weeks before I was due to go, Anne Harris asked me to come and write for her at the Sunday Independent. I had met Anne through her daughter, with whom I was working. She knew I had studied English, and offered me work at the paper, where she was then deputy editor.
I nearly ran from her suggestion, but a small voice in my head shouted over the fear, “Say yes, you idiot!”. When someone offers you the job you have wanted all your life, you find it within yourself to get over your fear, and simply say, “Yes, please, thank you”. I decided to turn down the master’s.
I have friends who made the move I didn’t make; one who did a similar course in the same college. They all now still live in London. This is what would have most likely have happened to me. Instead, I live in Dublin, five minutes from where I grew up. I have a daughter who is six, and a career as a journalist (it came around in the end), that I love.
I looked at my daughter yesterday as I contemplated writing this piece, and thought how inconceivable it is to me that she might not exist. But that is exactly what would have happened if I had taken up the course.
It’s strange, when someone asks you to reflect upon a decision you made which altered the course of your life. It makes you examine that life as it is now, hold it up under the light to see if it stands up to such close inspection.
There is little I would change.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine