Life Begins At 22: Gemma Burgess

To kickstart my Life Begins At 22 thingy, here are my answers to the questions I’ll soon be asking you…

1. What were you doing at 22? Living situation, work/study situation?

I had just moved to London. My very first job was a temp job writing website copy at Schroders, a bank in the City, for a few weeks. It was corporate but fun, because everyone was much older than me and took me out to lunch and to bars after work, like a pet. Then I got a job as a very junior writer for a technology marketing company in Shepherd’s Bush. I hated it. I didn’t understand what I was writing about most of the time, so I cried quite a lot, but I didn’t know what else I could do with my life because I had no real skills and no experience, and that made me cry too. The MD of the company was an idiot who constantly used words the wrong way, which really depressed me, so I cried more. On the plus side, the company was largely staffed by under-25s, so we all went out a lot.

What else? Let’s see. I was living with two American girls, in a total dump in a nasty area of London called Acton Vale. My clothes were all wrong and I couldn’t afford to buy any more. I ate awful food, because I couldn’t cook, and I couldn’t afford to eat anywhere nice. I was cold all the time. I kept losing stuff. My purse was stolen. It always seemed to take my employers months to get payroll set up, so I was constantly waiting to get paid. My bedsheets were so cheap that I could literally read through them. Being broke is shit.

One of the American girls moved out, and a Danish girl and her Swedish husband moved in, and then the lease ended, and while I was back in Hong Kong with my parents for Christmas, either the American girl or the couple stole six hundred pounds of my deposit and left the country. (I never figured out who it was.) So I got back, completely homeless and broke. I lived on various friends’ floors for a bit, and we drank a lot of wine and smoked a lot of cigarettes.

Then I moved in with two lovely posh English boys in Battersea. I got a raise, I bought some decent clothes, my best friends from university finally moved to London so my social life improved immeasurably. And then I found out about advertising copywriting and thought ‘hell yes, I want to do that’ so I started applying for jobs with advertising agencies – it would take another 18months of applications and begging to get anywhere, but I knew what I wanted, and I was having fun. Life got better.

The weird thing is that during all that shit, being broke and cold and homeless and unsure of what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life, I was still pretty happy. I was living in London and every day was a new adventure. Life was good.

2. Were you dating / in a relationship? What was it like?

I had just broken up with a very long-term university boyfriend so I really wasn’t looking for a serious relationship. I dated my friend’s brother for a little while, mostly because he was the only person I knew when I moved to London, ha, and then he left to go travelling around the world and soon emailed me that he’d fallen in love with a medical student part-time model heiress virgin. (I was like well that’s just AWESOME for you.) So then I kissed a lot of boys in bars. And I had a lot of strange dates, like the roommate of the guy who played The Mummy in The Mummy who I met in a bar when I was accidentally four hours early for a party, and the extremely hot bartender and would-be music producer who borrowed money from me and disappeared, and oh… others. All idiots in their own special way. Dating in my early 20s was like shoe-shopping. I figured I’d keep trying on different styles until I found one that fit. It turns out there are many, many different kinds of shoes.

3. What was the hardest thing that happened to you that year? What was the best?

Probably when my rental deposit money was stolen. It was all the savings I had in the world and I couldn’t afford to move into a new rental without it… I rang my dad reverse charges in Hong Kong, as I was wont to do, and cried, as I was also wont to do. He said I had to deal with it myself (which was fair enough, I should add; I was – ahem – fairly spoiled and indulged up until that point). I went and sat in the estate agent office and tried not to cry and said ‘I told you to give me the money directly, so you owe me that deposit, if you made a mistake and gave it to the wrong person, it’s your responsibility’ and wouldn’t leave till they gave it to me. Which they did, eventually, and I realized that if you want something in life you should – and can – do it yourself. Without crying. So in a way that was the hardest thing, but also the best thing: I learned how to cope. (I have a theory that the main difference between people who are happy in life and people who aren’t are coping skills. If you can handle anything, then – boom – no matter what happens, you’ll be okay. People who fall apart whenever something goes wrong, and turn to someone else to fix their problems, will have a tougher time. So in a way, going through shit periods is like earning your future happiness. But that’s a whole other subject / blog post.)

The other best thing was discovering advertising copywriting existed. I really didn’t know it was even a thing before that. I don’t know how I thought ads were made, I just didn’t think about it. Once I realized that in great advertising every thought, every concept, every word, every line, every full stop has purpose and power and charm… I was hooked. (That lasted about seven years, till I realized I was being paid to sell people shit they didn’t need, and was being told what to do by subhuman account managers, and decided I’d had enough.)

4. What would you say to yourself at 22, knowing what you know now?

 It will all be worth it.

5. What do you do now, by the way?

I write books and screenplays. I’m married to a lovely Irish guy named Fox. I have a baby boy named Errol. I live in New York City.

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