Changing careers: ‘I panicked only slightly when I handed in my resignation letter’
I bought a house, then moved out. Marched against austerity. Tried to get thin. Had a romance. Finally, I packed in my legal career and moved to Norwich to do a master’s in creative writing
Catherine Conroy: ‘I knew that if I ran away, I’d have to take myself with me.’ Photograph: Barry Du Monde
In September I left my job and moved to Norwich to do a master’s in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.
I had been working as a solicitor in Dublin for six years. I was restless, but you don’t want to keep complaining about your job. So I tried hard to appreciate what I had. Perhaps I was just a bit depressed. I tried to have an Oprah-like gratitude for every lovely day. Appreciate, appreciate, be consciously grateful. I reminded myself that if I ran away, I’d have to take myself with me. I took up hobbies, joined a gospel choir, sang at music festivals. I baked. I joined a writing class and wrote as much as I could in my spare time.
I thought maybe if I had my own home, I’d feel rooted. In 2007 I bought a house. In the TK Maxx homeware section I gathered up armfuls of shabby-chic flower jugs and picture frames. I pretended it wasn’t a huge mistake to buy in an area that hadn’t gentrified on schedule. Gardaí walked up and down the road. Kids jumped on the roof and graffitied the walls. People said: “They are just children and they will grow out of it.” Then the front windows of the house were broken. Then there were petrol bombs in the garden; just little ones behind the rocks in the flower bed.
I went on a crusade. I called Sinn Féin. I called the local GAA manager. I had meetings with juvenile liaison officers. I was in the back of a taxi one day, shouting down the phone to a local councillor, and the driver said, “Get out of there love. They were there before you and they’ll be there after you.”
I left. I rented the place out and rarely visited it again. I try not to think about the negative equity; it is more money than I will ever have, so it is ridiculous and impossible, like receiving monthly demand letters from someone who wants your leg. I moved to a nicer neighbourhood where there are trees, even a river nearby.
I was made redundant and went on the dole for a few months. Then I got a new job and willed myself to like it. My aunt said: “Since when was anyone ever supposed to like their job? This is a new idea.” A few months in, I interviewed for a permanent role. They asked: “How exactly does a free spirit like you fit within the rigid structures of our organisation?”
I marched against austerity.
I went to Weight Watchers. I thought maybe if I was thin I’d feel a bit more settled. I sat in a pale orange room in a community hall where women told stories about being ashamed of their bodies. One woman drives to the 24-hour Tesco at 4am so she can shop where nobody will see her. One woman cried while we queued for the scales – her mother had died that day and she would keep doing this for her. I walked the legs off myself all summer in Phoenix Park. I weighed out the days in bowls of porridge oats.
I took up yoga.
I met a man. I fell in love with his way with words. After a while, I had to admit that the pun times were over. The big dramatic love deflated and quietly slid down the back of the sofa. I went to weddings and watched amazed at all these people walking calmly down the aisle. Some friends had babies. I spent time with them in playgrounds. You cannot be anxious when singing softly into tiny ears, or gently kissing the palms of tiny hands.
I marched for Savita.
On a cold Monday night last February I met some friends for a drink in the Ginger Man, on Dublin’s Fenian Street. Years ago we had taken a writing class together in an attic room on Clare Street. I was unexpectedly jealous when two of them said they were going to do a master’s in creative writing in the US. I wondered what I had been doing with myself all this time and if I could possibly afford it. I applied for the course in Norwich. When I got the phone call offering me a place, there was nothing to decide.
I went to the therapist I used to go to years ago after my mother had died. I wanted her to tell me whether this was all some sort of manic episode. She said she wished half the people used the money they paid her to instead change careers. She said people might stop creating drama in other areas of their lives if they were doing something they loved. Afterwards, when I told a friend, she said, “The only ones who go to therapy are people who never shut up about themselves.”
I told people at work. They made Alan Partridge jokes about Norwich. I tried not to feel ridiculous about my own grand notions. I spent the next two months evading questions. What will you be at the end of this? What sort of thing will you write? Will you change our names? Why would you need a course to write?
I panicked only slightly when I handed in my resignation letter. My boss said “You’re just giving up your entire legal career!” Later he said he was a little jealous. People sidled up to me in the corridor and told me about the poetry they wrote in their garden shed, or the screenplay they kept in a drawer in their desk. It reminded me of the party scene in Serpico.
“Larry’s a poet but he works for an advertising agency.”
“How come all your friends are on their way to being somebody else?”
I cashed in my pension.
I packed all my stuff into my long-suffering father’s attic. Dad looked on sadly. He thinks he will reach some state of spiritual nirvana if he ever succeeds in completely clearing out the attic and shed. I gave plants and pictures to my friends, not really intending it to be forever.
I arrived in Norwich with one big suitcase. I brought only casual clothes. I got a room in a little house in a nice part of town. It is surprisingly easy to have none of your own things. These are someone else’s lavender sheets, someone else’s big soft towels – they all came with the room. The man across the street flies a Union Jack from his bedroom window. I found a coffee shop with wifi where you can sit for hours.
On the first day of university, the girl beside me at registration is wearing a cat-ear headband for no apparent reason, and I remember exactly what age I am. In my first class, I’m relieved to see that the ages range from 21 to 70. I discover they are mostly wonderful. My lecturers could be played by Emma Thompson or Maggie Smith. For the first time in my life, I find myself in a university library early in the term. I would not miss a lecture.
I look for a part-time job. I occasionally wake up in my mint green room and think, “Where in the name of God am I?”
And I don’t think too much more about what happens next.