This month we have the pleasure to feature Anne East, author of ‘No Man’s Land, which, in her words is about her experience of growing up in between cultures — not quite one but not the other either. We also spoke about her time at York and how she dealt with anxiety and self-doubt, turning that around into a successful freelancing career.
What course did you choose, why did you choose it and why York?
I read English linguistics with literature but have to confess that York wasn’t actually my first choice. Cardiff was my preference but when I visited both universities after the conditional offers came though, I definitely felt more ‘at home’ at York than Cardiff so I was secretly quite pleased at not having done as well at A-level as my teachers had anticipated!
Describe your experience in 3 words.
If I had to sum up my experience at York in three words, they’d be: challenging, overwhelming, and erratic. They might not be synonymous with the usual experiences that many other graduates have but my time at York has nevertheless been hugely beneficial and definitely made me more resilient as a result.
Looking back at 18 year old me, I’d say I definitely wasn’t emotionally mature enough to fully appreciate being at York. But being (at the time) fairly impulsive, I’d chosen universities as far away from home as I could (I grew up in Surrey). It wasn’t until I got to York that I realised just how far away from home I really was.
I’d been to an all girls school and while that certainly makes you tough in one way, it can leave you woefully unprepared in others. I’d also come from a strict household. My heritage is South East Asian and although my parents came to the UK in the 1970s and I was born in England, there were still expectations about my behaviour and achievements that were definitely more ‘eastern’ than ‘western’. Don’t get me wrong, my parents were relatively liberal and it could have been a lot worse but even so, I felt there was this unspoken assumption of what ‘success’ looked like and in my head, I didn’t reflect that.
So, when I got to York, as well as the anxiousness of starting something new, I had this overwhelming insecurity about myself and my ability to do well. I constantly worried about not meeting the standards that I believed my parents expected me to meet.
Ultimately it was a bit of an explosive cocktail and I made bad decisions, silly choices and developed a disorderly relationship with food. It wasn’t an eating disorder by any stretch of the imagination but limiting what I ate I suppose gave me some control. I also spent a lot of time at the leisure centre gym and exercise became my escape. I basically left York with no friends except one who I’d also (by coincidence) been to secondary school with.
What happened after you graduated? What role did you move into?
After I graduated, I went into fashion buying. Buying wasn’t a career I’d even heard of in my teens but I did a four week placement at Cosmopolitan magazine in one summer holiday and one of the journalists in the fashion department mentioned it. It sounded pretty cool and after a mini maths test and interview, I got a job in the girlswear buying department at Debenhams. At the time, the first rung on the ladder was buyer’s admin assistant (BAA) followed by assistant buyer (AB) then buyer and senior buyer.
As a BAA at Debs (as we called it) I experienced all the highs I suppose I should have enjoyed at York. I met a great bunch of people who genuinely seemed to like me, for me, and I’m still in touch with a few old work colleagues all these years on. Even better, the work was interesting and eventually I moved from girlswear to womenswear.
Fashion buying was everything you’d expect it to be – exciting, fast-paced, filled with after work drinks, business suppers and nights out. Working in the heart of London (our offices were behind the Oxford Street store) helped heighten the excitement.
Buying is however, exhausting! You’re always ‘on’ and as a naturally introverted person it became tiring having to keep the professional mask on, it’s also a very repetitive job. Fashion really does come in cycles and once you’ve been through several, the lustre starts to fade. For me, it faded completely when I left Debenhams after about six and a half years to go and work for the Wallis brand. Wallis was part of the Arcadia Group which was at the height of its high street power at the time. Arcadia in short, was a toxic environment. I left after a year but by that point, I was one of the longer serving assistant buyers which goes to show what kind of workplace it was.
Leaving was an easy decision to make and I’d already lined up a new buyer role in Cambridge, working for Play.com which sold DVDs, music and memorabilia. The move to East Anglia was partly because my then boyfriend (now husband) had recently bought a business based in Suffolk. It just so happened that the Play.com role came up when I’d had enough of London work-life. In honesty, moving was the best decision we could have made. We now live in Suffolk and although living semi-rurally took getting used to (I’d never heard of oil central heating before then) it’s great being able to live at a gentler pace.
If anyone used to shop at Play.com, you’ll know it was bought out; most of us took voluntary redundancy. By that stage, I had two small children and jammily managed to get a job as a ‘web author’ for my local council rewriting their website. If it sounds completely unrelated to buying, you’d be right. My line manager basically took a massive punt on me when she gave me the job – thanks in part (I’m sure) to my degree from York.
When did you decide to start freelancing and how did you go about it?
The web author role was temporary until the site got up and running, so as my contract neared its end, I started putting the feelers out for freelance writing work. I used the website People Per Hour to find clients. It was fairly soul destroying at times, mainly because a lot of people simply don’t respond when you pitch and you’re competing with writers all over the world who can afford to charge £5 for 500 words. Luckily, I hit the jackpot when I signed up with an agency that had me writing content for the comparison website comparethemarket.com and that gave me the kick-start I needed to build up a credible portfolio.
I’ve been a freelance writer now for seven years, and that early work writing for a comparison site has become my niche. Day to day I now write product guides for various comparison sites and insurance brokers. I also write ad hoc content for an agency based in Belgium (random, I know) which has given me some interesting clients. I also have a byline as a personal finance writer for an investment platform.
Even more recently, my first book was published as part of the Inklings series published by 404Ink. It was all a bit out of the blue but I’d responded to a pitch request I’d seen in a newsletter for journalists and writers. At the time, I’d been trying to get my foot in the door with more newsworthy sites and publications and wanted to write specifically about social issues. Sadly, as many writers will appreciate, the pitching process can be brutal and I’d not had much luck until 404Ink contacted me.
Tell us about your book
My book, No Man’s Land, is about my experience of growing up in between cultures — not quite one but not the other either. I’m British but my version of Britishness isn’t universally accepted and I wanted to understand why and discuss how that feels. I also explore how the teaching of history, media and the language of the popular press perpetuate and cement the notions of what ‘British’ is. This is all from the perspective of my South East/East Asian heritage which is an angle I feel is rarely heard, and even less listened to.
Significantly, I think my book explains why I felt the way I did at York — the awkwardness and the insecurity.
The writing process from start to finish took about ten months. I had to fit it in around the rest of my work so it was stressful at times (as my family can confirm, I definitely went from shouty mum to shoutier mum). Nevertheless, writing No Man’s Land has been incredibly cathartic and I’m forever grateful to Laura and Heather at 404Ink for giving me the opportunity.
If someone wanted to start freelancing, what tip would you give them?
I won’t insult anyone by saying freelancing is easy. It isn’t. In the early (and not so early) years, there were months where I literally earned nothing and had to rely on savings to pay my tax bill. Freelancing also means working evenings and weekends because a lot of the time you simply can’t afford to turn down work.
Another big battle is finding good clients. I’ve had terrible ones who change their minds constantly and ones that are just dreadful from an admin and pay standpoint but the beauty is you can ditch them and move on. The big thing for me is not having regrets. Although my experience at York sometimes makes me feel sad, I don’t regret it. It helped me become more resilient and gave me a benchmark of what I was willing to accept for and from myself. So, if you want to freelance, try it. Do it as a side hustle while you find your feet.
What’s your favourite thing about your job?
My favourite things about my job are the autonomy and the variety. One day I can be writing about the rising cost of energy and the next, writing about what could invalidate your car insurance. It’s not glamorous and it’s certainly not as accomplished as some of the other York stories you’ll read but my journey from York in 2001 when I graduated to now, has been fraught with self-doubt, low self-esteem and insecurity. Now, finally, I’m in a good place and I feel privileged and lucky to have achieved what I have.
As for what’s next? That’s something I’ve been asking myself. I love what I do but not sure I want to write about insurance until I retire! I’d like to write more about social issues, history and culture but it’s finding a platform to start with. So, who knows what will happen next, but the future is definitely something to look forward to.