Grad Talk with Elizabeth Day

Bea Carpenter 

To me, Elizabeth Day was an obvious choice for someone to interview for Grad Talk. For those of you yet to discover her she is a best selling author and journalist currently writing a weekly column for the You magazine in the Mail on Sunday and is the host of the very popular “How to fail” podcast. She is releasing a book of the same name “part memoir, part manifesto”, all about learning from our mistakes, that comes out very shortly.

Before all of this success she graduated from Queens College Cambridge with a double first in History. At the end of Lent term, on International Women’s Day no less, I was lucky enough to chat to Elizabeth over the phone and ask her a few questions on life after Cambridge and how she felt her time here prepared her for the real world. Although we veered off track slightly during our conversation, I managed to ask a few of the questions I prepared so I hope you enjoy reading Elizabeth’s answers and hearing her advice.

B: When you were at University were you still able to enjoy writing and use it as a creative outlet or did you ever become bored of it?

E: I’ve never in my life been bored of writing, which is a really lovely thing given that’s how I make my living. It’s interesting, because I didn’t actually do that much creative writing but I did an enormous amount of journalism; I was a section editor on Varsity, I edited my college magazine (a satirical magazine) and I was the JCR communications officer that involved doing a quarterly newsletter. I did try to write a really terrible play, which quite rightly got absolutely nowhere.

Elizabeth remarked that she didn’t write novels because in her head it felt like a “craft and a skill that I had to learn” and she didn’t feel ready to do so. This led us to discuss how odd it is that writing is best learnt by doing, yet so often people are too scared to start. Elizabeth believes “ 95% of people have a novel in them, but very few people can sit down and write it”. One of her tips for novel writing is “the most important thing is getting words on a page” and that it can always be edited!

B: Did you feel the pressure of perfectionism when at University?

E: I massively felt it. I did come from an all Girls school and the cult of perfectionism was very strong there as well. I was an internal perfectionist: I felt I got rewarded when I got good grades and that became a sort of inner loop in my head. But I also think Cambridge is an incredibly stimulating environment in the right way because there are so many people thinking in different ways and you are actually encouraged to think differently so I found it a bit of release after school, being stuck so rigidly to a curriculum. Where I found it really difficult was revision, it was like an arms race for revision hours. It becomes its own hot house!

Elizabeth went on to say she felt 4 hours of revision a day was the optimum for her. This was hugely reassuring to hear after having seen people trapped in the library for so much of last year’s Easter term and dreading the prospect of it. It also just reminded me that we all learn in different ways so trying to compare ourselves is pointless.

B: Perhaps because everyone here has hyper-achieved, they need to find another level of competition?

E: Yes and I realised quite quickly that I couldn’t do everything whereas at school I did lots of different extra curriculars. So I focused on the thing I really loved which was writing. If people are brilliant at everything across the board there is a danger that they then get a bit lost in adult life because in adult life the reality is you can’t be good at everything all the time!

(We then bonded over the fact that we both play the trumpet and noted the lack of female trumpet players so I just wanted to flag it up as a plea for more women to learn brass!)

E: Something I would give as a piece of advice, is sometimes at Cambridge it felt as if I was not one of the best and brightest of my generation but actually life is reassuringly long and it might just be you are not in that patch of life where you are at your most fulfilled and that will come to you in your 20’s or 30’s or 40’s!

B: When you had just graduated from University did you experience that limbo as so many graduates do?

E: I was approaching that sense of limbo in my final term of second year. [After graduation] I thought to myself I would do a postgrad journalism training course or go onto work in the local paper but then a friend dragged me to a careers fair. The first man I saw was the deputy editor of the Londoner’s diary on the Evening Standard and it was completely random that he was there. He said to come in for some work experience so I went in for a week in summer, by the end of [it] I had a full time job there. I couldn’t believe it. I went straight into that job after graduating and I knew how lucky I was. The reason I can relate to the feeling of limbo is that Max Hastings, the editor who had given me the job, left a few months after I had arrived and it went through quite a chaotic time. I started to feel like I was stagnating slightly and I didn’t know how to get on to the next thing and I found that a really tricky period of my life. Similarly I felt like everyone else had it sorted, but they didn’t. It was just the impression I was torturing myself with. The great thing about being at that stage of life is you can take gambles, because you don’t have dependence. So I was able to leave that job on the idea of getting something else.

Another piece of advice from Elizabeth concerning journalism is that you can genuinely learn on the job, so to go for it.

B: I wanted to ask how has writing “How to fail” compared to writing novels and your work as a journalist?

E: I’ve always dreamt of being a novelist [but] I’ve loved writing How To Fail in a way that I didn’t anticipate. I think the reasons are twofold; one is that I’ve now been a journalist for 18 years and there is a confidence that comes from just having done something a lot and with this particular book I was surprised to find that I had so much I wanted to say and it came to me quite naturally. I loved the process. [In journalism] there is always a word count and an editor who wants a certain thing from me. With How to Fail I could write it exactly how I wanted it to be and I found it so liberating. With a novel you have to invent an entire world, but with How To Fail the groundwork was already there because it was my lived experience. The other thing, a practical thing, [with a tight deadline] I went to LA for a month, said no to all other journalism and wrote everyday in the sunshine and it was such a happy period of my life, getting this stuff of my chest and a tan at the same time…

B: As it’s International Women’s day and this is for Girl Talk, I wondered what your experiences have been of gender discrimination in Publishing and Journalism?

E: Publishing is incredibly female dominated and I love it and I work with amazing, strong and extremely kind and clever women. It has been a joy from beginning to end. I’ve had the same editor for every single book, she’s called Helen and she is amazing and the way she expresses herself is so respectful towards me and my writing which is not the case with journalism. The only place [sexism] has made itself felt is in the jacket choice for book covers and historically a lot of female authors have been marketed a certain way. A man would write about family and it would be called ‘a state of the nation novel’ and a woman would do it and it would be called a ‘domestic drama’.

In terms of Journalism, I would have said the same thing until the #metoo movement. I had gone into journalism at the stage where I still felt very grateful for being allowed into this predominantly male space, I didn’t feel I deserved to be there. I was constantly saying yes to things. I now realize I should have been questioning the entire system and not afraid to claim my own space. A lot of things I was asked to write about were “Women’s interests” as it was at the time when editors were desperate to get more women reading papers. It’s been wonderful to see how journalism has adapted and become so much less binary and I honestly think it’s because of a generation of younger women who are calling it out. I needed that to happen to understand my own history.

B: Finally, what are the three most valuable takeaways from your Uni experience (and life in general) and what advice would you give to people at Cambridge now?

E: The first advice I would give is know there is more than one way of looking at something. You might think that something has happened that is really bad and you’re failing at, but I promise you that there is another way of looking at it which makes those difficult moments into opportunities.

My second piece of advice is don’t feel you have to do everything at Cambridge. It is completely fine just to do your degree. You are enough doing that. You don’t have to be everything to everyone or do everything at once.

And my third piece of advice, I was about to say something that made me sound 85… but appreciate the extraordinary opportunity you have being at Cambridge and try and stop yourself at various moments and breathe it in.

B: Thank you so much! It’s been so lovely to talk to you.

E: Pleasure, thank you for thinking of me!

I immensely enjoyed chatting to Elizabeth and am so grateful to her for giving up her time to do so. A particularly lovely thing about our conversation was that she continually expressed how grateful she was for her time at Cambridge for the friends she made there and the opportunities it provided. So much so that she pays tribute to Cambridge in her novels with little “winks” to people and as a mark of appreciation to it.

So often we talk about our university lives with a negative rhetoric so hearing someone looking back with such fond memories was a well-needed reminder to truly embrace the wonders it has to offer.

She did not in anyway ask me to promote it but for your own enjoyment I hugely recommend that you pre-order her book How to Fail and have a listen to the podcast to help keep you keep grounded over Easter term!

Link to Pre-order:


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