Friday, September 27, 2013

That Second String To Your Bow

from Jacqueline

First of all, I know Patty wrote about one of her dreams a couple of weeks back, and though I don’t want anyone to think we’re the woo-woo dream blog – I had a really scary dream a few nights ago, and it hasn’t let go.

I dreamed I no longer had a day job and I was panicking.  Then I woke up and realized I no longer have a day job, and I panicked, went into the kitchen where my husband was making coffee and said, “That’s it, I’ve got to get a job.”  He looked at me as if I’d just dragged us both into a parallel universe and said, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve been working all hours and weekends on a manuscript revision. I think you’ve got a job.”

I shook my head.  “No.  I need another job.” I was still in my jammies and probably a little bleary eyed, but I was thinking fast.

He queried when I would be able to fit in this new job (I was ready to pick up application forms from a half-dozen retail outlets that very day), and pointed out that I’d had an anxiety dream, and in his best accommodating therapy voice said, “We all have those dreams in times of stress.” 

Don’t you hate that, the “Not to worry, let me just call the psychiatrist” voice.

The thing is, I know where this dream came from.  When we were kids my mother taught my brother and I that it was always really important to have a “second string to your bow.”  If you don’t know the phrase, it basically means have back-up, and usually in the context of work.  Never depend upon just one job, because you never know when that job will cease to exist.  Expand your skills set, in more common parlance. From the mouth of a daughter of the Depression to our impressionable little selves, that message hit home.  We’ve both had multiple jobs from the time we could follow instructions and count our wages to make sure we hadn’t been shorted.

At six years old my brother was going to the back doors of all the pubs on the way to school (about six in all) – he would rip the lead from the top of empty wine and spirit bottles left outside, and collect it in a drawstring shoe bag.  He also collected scrap metal from all sorts of places – a machine shop in the town or the blacksmith – and he would sell the lot to the scrap metal merchant every couple of weeks.  He expanded his business in the buying and selling of all sorts of things, and by the time he was about nine years old, my brother was running a few well-established revenue streams from the comfort of his bedroom.  Believe me, the kid in the new movie, The Family has nothing on my brother.  I think one of the most interesting was his book business.  He would skive off school (skiving = playing hooky), get the bus to the railway station eight miles away, and then go up to London on the train.  He’d head straight for Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road (at nine years of age!), whereupon he would invest in a good selection of adventure books from the cheapie rummage pile – as many as would fit in a box.  Then he would schlep the lot back and sell them at school for a good profit. 

 And how did he manage to explain his absence from school?  Ah, well, that’s where I came in. I was the best – and I mean, The Best – forger of parental letters to teachers, the go-to girl for a sick note, or other explanatory communication describing reason for absence.  All I needed was a sample of the mother’s writing – or another female if mother wasn’t present; teachers didn’t really trust dads – and I was all set. The key was to keep it short, polite, and to use a few words that teachers assumed a kid would not know how to spell.  “Sickness and Diarrhea” was always a good one, especially when you consider the British spelling, “Diarrhoea.”  Gastroenteritis was another, though you had to be careful with that in case it resulted in a full-scale alert and newspaper headlines that the school was on lockdown due to an epidemic.  Earaches were handy too, for some reason, and I always cautioned my clients not to have more than a couple of days each month, and to look pasty when they came back to school.  I have forged other things since, but you would be shocked to know what they were.

We both had many second strings in our teen years, though to this day, my tenure in the egg packing factory ranks as the worst job I ever labored over. When I left college and began my “career” life, I always had at least one other job on the side.  While working in London, my second string was two or three nights a week bartending on the Thames party boats – what a kick that was!  After work, often in the small hours, the boat would moor on one of the pontoons in the middle of the river, close to Westminster, and the River Police would come down in their speedboats and ferry us to the dock.  And on the way they’d tell us how many “jumpers” they’d had that night, or who they’d “apprehended.”  I loved it!  I also worked a stall in Portobello Road market at weekends with a friend (Art Deco jewelry, pottery, chinaware, that sort of thing), while around the same time my brother was trading vintage clothing at Camden Lock market – his day job was working for the National Trust as deputy head gardener at Batemans, Rudyard Kipling’s former home in Sussex.

That's Portobello Road - nothing to do with Batemans, which looks like this:

When I came to the USA, it seemed working several jobs was the American way – I was right at home.   While in sales and marketing for a tech start-up, I was also waitressing at two places in the evenings and at weekends.  Two spare strings to my bow!  And I was doing voice-over work.  Another string!  Funny, I just remembered a conversation with my brother, who was already living here when I was toying with the idea of hopping across the pond – I remember asking him, “What on earth would I do in America?”  His answer?  “You can be anybody you want to be here – as long as you’re prepared to work.” 

Bring on the strings!

When I wrote my first novel I was convalescing following that riding accident, and one of my motivations was that I really couldn’t bear not having work to do.  But by the time I’d found an agent, I was back at my job, and also had a couple of spare strings.  I kept the jobs going for a couple of years, but eventually discovered I couldn’t do it all – my second book tour, especially, seemed to go on and on and on for about four months as more events were added.  So, I gave up the day job and, eventually, the strings in favor of the writing and held my breath. It was the scariest thing I have ever done in my entire life, because I was saying that writing (and everything that goes with it) was my day job. The truth is, it's more than that, it's my passion.  Now it’s giving me nightmares.  This is the only string to my bow, and the fear has crept up on me.  What happens if I break the string?

and then...

But a funny thing happened.  The day after I had that dream, I received an email. I can’t say too much about it, but let’s say it was from a company tendering a proposition – somewhat allied to my day job.  And I’m thinking about it, weighing up whether I can balance it all again.  It’s compelling, not only because it would be fun, but, well, it saves me having to write sick notes in return for coin again.

Now - what childhood lessons still lurk in your life?


  1. My mother entertained me with "Grim" German tales designed to teach me about life. Enter "Der Zuppen Kasper", who did not finish his food. Every day he got thinner and thinner until, well...a little mound of dirt indicated his demise. I was left with the lesson that you better eat what was on your plate and now I can rationalize my food addiction by blaming my mother's read aloud selections.

    1. from Jacqueline

      I think many of us were brought up with the "You'd better clean your plate" message - but I can't remember Kaspar - that little mound of dirt would have terrified me!

  2. I'm trouble! Haven't had a day job since 1989!
    Paul Levine

    1. from Jacqueline

      Paul, you've written three million books - and you now also have a business with e-books - I think you've never given up your day job, just changed it! But 1989? Good for you, Paul - you light the way for the rest of us.

  3. Okay, now I'm intrigued about "the offer." I won't rest until I figure it out.

    In my neck of the woods it was called "having something to fall back on":

    Me: I want to be an actor.
    Mom: That's lovely but why not get your teaching certificate so you'll have something to fall back on." (I never did) The message is: you are going to fail and then you'll need to support yourself. I understand a parent's concern but why set your kid up to fail before he/she even tries.

    1. from Jacqueline

      Patty, I had exactly the same thing happen when I said I wanted to be an actor, and I DID get my teaching certificate, though I never taught. But I became involved in amateur drama, and it was fun - however, even at this great age, I always slightly envy kids whose parents say things like, "Wow, an actor! That's great! Go for it!" Yes, the "something to fall back on" always suggests no chance of success.