Tuesday, July 12, 2011

So About That Writer Quitting Her Day Job For A...Er...Day Job...

Heads up to Alethea Kontis for this article about much acclaimed fantasy author, Steph Swainston, who has decided to leave her writing career behind in favor of a career teaching Chemistry.  A sobering article indeed, especially for all those - like myself - in the hunt for that New York publishing deal.

Now, I've some thoughts about this, and like all my thoughts, they're to be taken with a grain of salt.  Maybe not even that.  And there's no snark intended here, but as one of those mentioned in the article who are: 

(doubtless many teachers - that's ME!) spending their summers writing novels, with an eye on escaping the lesson plans and daily commute

I've some thoughts from the other side of the fence, thoughts of a fledgling writer who's been teaching - junior high and senior high - for almost eleven years now.  And, before I continue, let me clarify: I don't entertain any illusions of writing full time.  I've seen the toll it takes on friends and colleagues, and I'm not sure I want to go there.

Also, I've no dreams of ditching my teaching career in favor of a writing career.  In fact, much to my surprise, over the last three years I've realized that my teaching job is the BEST thing I've got going in favor of a writing career, for the following reasons:

1. a forgiving daily schedule, 8-3, with plenty of holidays, snow days, and of course, summer vacation - very conducive to writing. And I think I may have written three stories that found publication during my library studyhall duty this past year...

2. my summer off frees me up for Con travel

3. I'm an English teacher - which is made of 'awesome'.  During the year, I'm continually evaluating literature, the writing process, and always experiencing the classics anew

However, I'm a writer, first and foremost.  Teaching is a great gig, but it's a gig.  In a recent conversation, a friend said it was okay they hadn't written anything in awhile, because as long as they could keep teaching, their life was fulfilled.  If they had to stop teaching...then life, as they knew it, would be over.

And I realized it's the opposite for me.  I like teaching.  Some days, I love it.  But I could live without teaching, easily.  But writing?

Not so much.

Anyway, my observations concerning Ms. Swainston's decision:

But – cautionary tale alert! – the writer's life isn't what it could be. For starters, packing in the day job can be a mistake. Swainston says: "Writers have to have something as well as writing, something which feeds back into their work and makes it meaningful." She references the 19th-century Scottish writer and reformer Samuel Smiles. "He said that if you are going to be an artist, you should have a job as well, so that you're not relying on your art to pay your bills."

Now that last I totally agree with.  Why I'm very grateful for my teaching job.  But this next...

If we don't have external influences ..." she pauses, "well, look at Stephen King. All his characters seem to be writers." 

Okay, so maybe a little snark, but hopefully harmless.  First, I really don't think that bothers Steve much.  And it sure wouldn't bother me, if I were in his position.   Second, it's a pretty sweeping statement.  Yes, Steve King has written A LOT about writers.  But he's written about far different characters, also.

"I suffer terribly from isolation while writing. I really need a job where I can be around people and learn to speak again. It's much, much healthier to be around people. Human beings are social animals."

Yeah.  Hmmm.  While I enjoy teaching and therefore enjoy my students, I'm also sorta hermitish.  I figure all I need is my immediate family, my closest friends and my writer
friends (some folks belong in both those later two categories) my writing, and that's it.  So maybe I just proved her right, actually, because teaching forces me out in the open with, y'know, other people and all.

And then there are the fans. I first met Swainston at the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow in 2005, when her star was ascendant. She was on a panel discussing the influence of drugs on the genre. (She was speaking from some experience, having once worked for a pharmaceutical company developing medicines from cannabis.) Afterwards, when I spoke to her, she seemed harassed, impatient. She felt that no one was really listening or engaging; that the fans simply wanted to outdo one other with namechecks of books and authors. 

Again, hard to associate with this one, because I'm at the point where I'd just be happy for fans, period.  However, I've seen fellow writers struggle with this also, (see this and this) so I can see how much of a burden this could be.  

BUT, let me see: star-struck, shallow, intrusive fans versus pushy, presumptuous, arrogant, no boundary-why-can't-I-call-you-during-dinner-to-talk-about-my-child's-grade? stuck up, greedy and coddling 'my-child-would-never-fail-so-you-must-be-a-bad-teacher' parents?  

Tough call.

"The internet is poison to authors."

This I agree with completely.  I almost wish I could unplug entirely and give up the internet, but you almost CAN'T, anymore.  Double kudos for this one.

but it's an author's job to write a book, not do the marketing. Just like celebrities don't make good authors, authors don't really make good celebrities." 

Amen, sister. 

She says: "I have to get back to real life again. It wasn't an easy decision, because it took a lot to get to the stage of being a published author. 1. But during my teacher training so far, I've dealt with so much – flooded schools, fire alarms going off, children being sick ..." And, after living in her own fantasy worlds for so long, it's this seeming mundanity that Swainston craves. That and "doing something meaningful with my life". But won't she miss the writing? "Chemistry feeds that sense of wonder that made me want to be a writer in the first place," she says. 2. "Besides, I've never said I won't write again, just that if I do write another book, I'll do it on my terms."

1. Problem is - and I'm sure she's wise enough to know this - teaching isn't just all these romantic things, at least not in the United States.  It's also mindless bureaucracy dictated by academics who've hardly ever taught.  Driven by buzzwords and new initiatives and state or local standards that have very little in common with actual learning.  Lazy parents who expect teachers to teach not only content but also morality and values and basic life skills, and even lazier students who just don't give a rip.

It's poor funding.  Or grant funding for stupid things that only result in wasted time and equipment.

It's faculty who don't get along and think their views on education are the only right ones.

It's lesson plans driven by buzzwords, state standards, and academics who've never taught.

Soooo....wait.  Maybe not that different from publishing, after all.  All on a five day a week work schedule.

2. Again, even though I've been lucky enough to enjoy a decent amount of freedom in my teaching gig, if she's looking to do things on her own terms, teaching is the last place she'll be able to do that, unless she lands at the perfect school with a perfect principal/superintendent, with perfect students.  

Maybe teaching in the UK is a lot different than here, but as a teacher she'll work according to her principal, department chair, and superintendent's terms (see mindless bureaucracy), state standards, the lesson plans she's turned in, what her students allow her to do, their parents, etc...and don't forget a regular work day, which is kinda pesky, but I'm sure they'll have substitutes she can call in, too. 

Now, I don't mean any snark or criticism.   In fact, Ms. Swainston may very well be setting a model for future writers, even those published through New York - because she hasn't given up writing.  Just as a full time career.  And I can say that even if New York publishing does come knocking, I'm holding on to that day job. 

And again, I've seen firsthand what the grind of writing full time can do to a person, turning a "dream comes true" into a "living nightmare".  But, there's also lots of full time writers - several whom I also know personally - who've made it work for them.  

In any case, it's liable to be different for everyone.  Regardless, as Ms. Swainston says: "I have to get back to real life again." As a teacher, she'll get that, rest assured.

In spades.  And then maybe a little fantasy world building might be needed just to cope with that reality...