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Cafés, Chemists And Holiday Camps

How youthful work experiences can make a better writer

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

As I reflect on my own development as a writer, I am certain my teen experiences of weekend and holiday work were instrumental in my creative growth, arguably more so than my years spent limping through O levels at the local high school. Growing up in a small seaside community, I yearned for independence and dreamed of escape to ‘other places’. I developed the unnerving suspicion that nothing went unnoticed, that somehow everyone had an eye on each other’s business. My Saturday job in the local chemist confirmed this, when at fourteen I was suddenly privy to the sensitive details of the people around me. I knew who was suffering with haemorrhoids in the village; who with verrucas; I served young men returning to buy multiple toothbrushes before gaining the courage to ask for condoms; I knew which young mothers had come to rely on strong cough medicines just to get through the day.

Of course, confidentiality was a given, and while I never breathed a word of what I learned, it fascinated me, further provoking my imagination and curiosity for others’ lives. Many years later I would write my debut, Glasshopper, in which protagonist Jake works in a newsagent’s shop where his boss has a particular habit of discreetly handing him his pay packet, as though he’s a spy. Mr Holmes, the owner of my real chemist shop, used to do that. Silently, he’d fall into step with you and pass a small brown envelope from his hand to yours, before winking and disappearing behind the pharmacy screen. It was a tiny thing, but charming, and I remember it with fondness.

Government agency figures suggest the number of teenagers now combining part-time work with school or college has halved since the 1990s, and with a greater emphasis on doing well at school, alongside what seems a dwindling number of available casual jobs, it’s little wonder. Having recently passed through the GCSE years with my own children, I was interested in the varying attitudes towards combining casual work and education. A few of my kids’ friends said their parents actively discouraged them from getting a weekend job until their GCSEs were over, while others said they were desperate to earn a bit of money but couldn’t find a suitable post, due to that chicken-and-egg problem of ‘not having any experience’. It seems many employers now want evidence of some unpaid labour before they will consider taking on a teenager.

Eighteen-year-old Carys Gwilym is a first-year English and Creative Writing student at Southampton Solent University. ‘I was fourteen when I first started working, after a work experience placement in a local cafe. After the week was up they offered me a summer job — which I might not have got without that trial.’ I asked Carys if she felt the experience had benefitted her at a social or creative level. ‘100%. It’s helped improve my confidence in general. I now find that I can’t be unproductive for too long; that I always have to be busying myself. In my writing studies I find myself picking up overheard conversations or characteristics from customers that might inspire an element for a story.’

When my own daughter Alice was fourteen and unable to find paid work, she volunteered at a local wildlife sanctuary, where she mucked out hedgehog cages, fed injured seagulls and weighed incoming orphans. The work was dirty, smelly, unpaid and at times mildly hazardous. But it was also deeply rewarding, bringing her into contact with new people of different ages and backgrounds — and ultimately winning her the elusive currency of ‘experience’ to secure her first paid job in a pet shop. ‘My volunteering gave me some practical exposure to work, but mostly it taught me about people and communication. Unexpectedly, it also helped to inspire some of the animation storyboards I created when studying for my BTEC this year.’

A few months ago on Twitter, I sent out the question: Writers! What was your best and worst casual job as a teenager? The responses were many and varied, from the horrors of cleaning urinals to the joys of stocktaking in Waterstones; from the discomfort of baling hay in shorts to the perks of manning the ice cream stall in a local park. I heard from writers who in their younger lives had been shop assistants, cricket scorekeepers, babysitters, doughnut jammers, tea pourers, pie stuffers and pea pickers. They’d worked in holiday camps, call centres and care homes; on farms, in factories and fast-food chains. I asked a few to elaborate.

Author and journalist David Barnett had his first job at thirteen, delivering newspapers. While the paper round tested his nerves, taking him to some remote locations, the job was not without its perks. ‘I got to read the newspapers before delivering them, so I ended up being a pretty well-informed 13-year-old!’ During his early years at journalism training college he worked in McDonalds on grills, tills and litter duty. ‘I think that job definitely prepared me for being a writer — long, unsocial hours for very little pay,’ he jokes. ‘But seriously, it did bring me in touch with a lot of different people, with different stories, and I think that’s the key to being a good writer: understanding people, or at least trying to, and knowing that we’re all different but, conversely, we’re all the same.’

Bestselling thriller writer Mark Edwards also started with a paper round at thirteen. ‘All my teenage jobs were awful,’ he says. ‘Picking broad beans, washing up in a fish and chip shop, cleaning in a B&B. The worst was a summer holiday job in a food packing factory, picking deformed jelly babies off a conveyor belt and shovelling mincemeat into tubs. I think it taught me that I really needed to go to university so I could work in an office! And perhaps the awful people I encountered – being sworn at by five-year-olds on my paper round, being called Rambo by the blokes in the factory because I had long hair – made me want to write about how hell is other people.’

Novelist Shelley Harris reflects, ‘Some of the most interesting views I’ve had of humanity are the ones you get when you’re an envelope-stuffer, or a shoe-fitter, or a shop assistant. I use this material in my writing directly (fictionalising real experiences) and indirectly (remembering what it feels like to be dismissed by people based on the job you do). I remember singing to Madonna’s ‘Lucky Star’ amid piles of shoeboxes in the stockroom of Milwards, where we worked all day for £9 and blew it the same night on cocktails at The Falcon in Wycombe High Street. I’m currently brewing a novel about that.’

There’s no doubt these writers benefitted from their early working experiences, both personally and imaginatively. So, if today’s casual job market is tougher to crack into, what of our future writers? For many, the internship provides an alternative work experience environment, teaching valuable lessons in resilience, humour and hard graft. Editorial assistant Marleigh Price worked two internships at the start of her career in the publishing industry — one unpaid, the second paid. ‘The first internship was useful,’ she says. ‘I learnt a lot about the way a literary agency works and really enjoyed my time there. It did feel as though I was carrying out an assistant role for free, though, and if I hadn’t had friends in London to stay with and savings from other jobs, there’s no way I could have done it.’ Marleigh went on to a paid placement with Brighton publisher Myriad, which after six months led to her securing a full-time role in London. She believes that the confidence and skills she accrued during her internships put her in a stronger position when applying for permanent positions. ‘I got to meet authors, work on long-term projects and gain experiences and contacts that were essential in subsequently getting me a job within the industry.’

In an increasingly precarious world, the young face a different set of challenges to those we faced even a decade ago. The working landscape has changed; technology has moved on at speed. But it seems clear to me that they are meeting those challenges creatively, with their sleeves rolled up, to write their own distinctive way into the future.

Isabel Ashdown’s debut novel Glasshopper was published to critical acclaim in 2009, while she was studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester. She has since released a further four novels, the latest being Little Sister.

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