In abstracted moments, one may ask "How did I end up doing the job I am doing?" I do, anyway. Careers (although that word sounds a touch overstated) may not be what was intended at all.
When I was still (just) in secondary school, the people in charge had a bright idea. They thought they should have a Careers Master, someone to advise the boys on jobs. Strange as it may seem, this was a radical notion.
The new Careers Master hadn't the slightest clue about jobs. He had probably fallen into his own job by default. He'd been to university and, not having qualifications for anything in particular, he had taken up as a teacher because qualifications weren't needed.
You could do a year of "teacher training" after your degree - but only if you felt like it - and then you'd interview at some school or other, and they'd give you a job.
Anyway, in my last year or two at school, the Careers Master was tossed onto the shore. It was thought I might benefit from his services. So I went in to have a word with him.
I came out no wiser than when I went in. What was I any good at that might lead to a steady income? My chief accomplishments were painting (loved that), Ping-Pong (spent hours doing that), acting (reveled in that), and I was not too bad at "English," though no star pupil. The Careers Master must have looked at my record and shrugged helplessly.
In any event, I was fortunate enough to get into university - mainly on the strength of my older brother having gone to the college some years before. I'd also complimented the chaplain (one of my interviewers) on the felicity of his rock garden. Since I actually knew the difference between an edelweiss and a Gentiana acaulis, I think I impressed him.
University deferred worry about a job for four years. My hermetically sealed education continued for the duration.
Then I interviewed to become a teacher.
The world fell in! They gave the job to some other young man. Nothing to do with his aptitude or vocation. It was simply that he was good at rugby football. (I was not.)
In utter shame, I interviewed at another school, and for some inexplicable reason they put me on their staff.
I think, in fact, they spotted a sucker-in-waiting. I was given all the low-achievers to teach, kids who had long ago given up any idea of education. This baptism of ashes lasted a year. A year too long.
I lasted another year at another school, and really quite enjoyed it.
After that, I became a writer. Well, a sort-of feature journalist. An art critic. An essay writer. Not what you'd call a real career, of course, but at least I now found myself being paid (a little) for doing something for which my school career had actually, to some extent, prepared me.
Not that this preparation had been in any way deliberate. Indeed, it had nothing to do with the teachers at all.
I became employed as a writer on the strength of a few published essays. And the reason I took to the essay form had nothing to do with admiration for Joseph Addison or Dorothy Parker.
It stemmed directly from Bad Behavior.
The school I attended was not one of Britain's dyed-in-the-wool public schools, so the prefects were not allowed to beat people. But they were allowed to dish out certain punishments designed to rid us, I imagine, of original sin.
It didn't work. Our sins went on being as original as ever. We did awful things ... like talking when talking was forbidden. I still, unrepentantly, like doing that.
The usual punishment was "Write an essay." Jogging around a playing field in the rain was another, and not so much to my taste.
So, visualize the scene. Andreae has spoken when he shouldn't have. Worse still, he has been heard doing so.
Prefect: "That's it! Andreae! You will do 23 pages by lunchtime tomorrow ... on ... let me see ..." a certain sadistic relish here as the prefect thinks of an impossible subject "... on, yes, on whiskers. Any deviation from the topic and you'll do 23 more pages. Normal-size handwriting, please!"
Andreae: (defiantly): "Whiskers? Easy. No problem! Three pages, was it?"
But what people say and what they think are often different. I would be wondering how anyone could possibly write even half a page about whiskers. Or about raindrops on roses. Or warm woolen mittens. (These were a few of their favorite themes.)
It's amazing how demand creates supply. Which is how I learned to write essays.
Not long ago, one of my editors (in a rare moment of foolhardy praise) said I could probably write an essay about anything - even dirty socks. It's true. I had already done so. Well, about socks, anyway.
But as I have now finally come clean about the shady origins of my essayism, I am forced to come to another conclusion. One with which I suspect many a real, truly career-driven writer will agree.
It is this: A writing career is at root one long punishment. Not at all what I intended as a career. But has anyone out there got any suggestions for a good alternative?
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor