Saturday, September 24, 2011

Strange Way to Make a Living...

Writing is a strange way to make a living, and I had sold many books by the time I was forty but was not making enough money to live on.  I worked construction, ran heavy equipment, tracked satellites, taught - did many things to support life - and by the time I was forty I was working very hard and had become almost completely broke, living with my wife and son in a small cabin in northern Minnesota with no plumbing, no electricity, and no real prospects.      
                                                                                                                    - Gary Paulsen, Woodsong

I read that quotation aloud to my sixth grade students the other day, when one of them asked me if I would quit teaching once I got rich and famous as a writer, and I laughed.  They were astounded that Gary Paulsen - himself probably one of the most famous writers they know at their young age - would write such a thing.  They seemed equally perplexed that a teacher who is a published writer had such a pessimistic view of her chances of becoming wealthy doing what she loves.  Many of my students come from families who pull, if not six figure incomes, at least in the high fives.  They cannot concieve - though this is partially an aspect of simply being twelve - of not actually achieving one's dream career, however lofty it is.  They've been raised to believe that as long as they dream it, they can do it.

I wish I still held that lie as convicted truth.

I am a writer who teaches.  I love being with my students, but as each successive year wears on, I hate with greater passion what teaching has become.  I don't like to talk about it.  I don't have the statistics readily available in my head, can't counter the arguments of the other side, don't really have a better solution.  But where I once felt that teaching was my Calling, one that could live happily beside my heart's dream of writing, I now see it as the lesser of evils.  I can teach, or I can work at Wal Mart or some dead-spirit business office job, or I can force my family to do without health insurance and the income my teaching provides.  I can't support my family on my writing.  Not yet.  Maybe not ever.

Writing IS a strange way to make a living.  You either carve time out for it, or you feel yourself begin to wither a bit inside.  You know that you MUST do other things, as Gary Paulsen writes, "to support life" - but you know, unless you're a rare creature indeed, that these "other things" are not what you REALLY want to do, and every moment you're attending to the needs of what brings in the money is one less minute that you're writing.

Then, too, is the issue that writing is not something that one can schedule.  If you're in a creative mood and in the middle of something else, you either drop that "something else" and scribble like mad for a bit - or you lose that spark, which will never again burn as brightly or as clearly as when the Idea first struck you.  I've taken to spending a good chunk of my teaching "downtime" - meaning, my lunch - writing.  I no longer visit with my peers, and sometimes, when they come visit me, I find myself vaguely irritiated - something I instantly quash, as having peers who care and want to spend time with me is as necessary as writing is to keeping my sanity.  But I need that time to write, because otherwise, I'm wandering through the day half a person, my creative spark snuffed.

I hate that I can't make a living by writing.  I dream, even now, of being "discovered" - some editor of a publishing house, some agent, maybe just some writer at a comics publisher, will see a fragment of my work and will Know.  It's replaced my dream of being carried off by a white knight or a black-clad ninja, romantically whisked away from the mundane and onorous into a world of magic and Happily Ever Afters.  But it's not going to happen... not without a ton of work on my part.  Luckily for me, it's work I'm happy to do.

And while I work at being a writer... I really am grateful that I have paying work to support myself and my family.  I may hate teaching as a profession most days... but I truly enjoy being a teacher.  A teacher who writes... and a writer who teaches.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

So, What's a Fritter?

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.
Henry David Thoreau
US Transcendentalist author (1817 - 1862)
... and most of it is in our drawers and cabinets.
          US Children's book author (1970 - present)

I should have written this post at the end of the last school year, as I was hauling everything out of my desk to see what I could feasibly rid myself of.  Teachers and writers are pack rats, I think... we follow the motto of "You never know when you might need this."  As a result, the contents of our desks, drawers, cabinets, and closets create inventories of the unseen that would do the Smithsonian credit: Museum of American Paraphernalia.  I dumped my fritters wholesale into a storage tote, planning to carefully sort and organize before returning to school.  The tote, half emptied, is still on my son's train table in the living room, its fritters now in untidy piles and sharing space with Lego Ninjago ninjas, cups containing the remnants of my husband's experiments in making hot apple cider, and several pairs of socks rescued from our 6 month old puppy.

What are my fritters?  From school, at least, they include
  • Motivational stickers - Snoopy, smilies, scratch-n-sniff (the most desireable)
  • Sharpies, multicolored, thick and fine point
  • Notepads of many varieties
  • Reversable wrist brace for when typing starts becoming too much for my tendons
  • Polished leopard stone
  • Unpolished river rock with visible amethyst crystals
  • Letter from the former governor of Connecticut about my first picture book
  • Letter from a former student, now in the Army, when he was twelve and leaving my class
  • Band-Aids
  • Ibuprofin, monster-sized bottle, expired
  • Fork
  • Small yellow plastic penguin - Neopets?
  • Two dozen used manila folders, varying condition
  • "Student of Merit" certificates
  • Four bookmarks
  • Photo of my husband in a hotel room
  • Business card from a reptile breeder
  • "Once Upon a Time" card game
  • Pencils, 5
  • Half-filled boxes of staples, 6
  • Something white, round, and plastic. Inside of a roll of tape?
  • Pre-stamped cards to send to Grandmother
  • Tiny decorative post-it notes I never  use, but keep because they're pretty
  • Packet of tissue that reads "I didn't make the honor role."  (Bought because of the typo - "role" should be "roll")
  • Three journals, nowhere near filled
  • Bella Sara and Magic trading cards
  • Screwdriver shaped like a battery
  • One G.I. Joe comic book
I could go on.  Nothing can be sorted, really, as there are few categories I can lump "like" things into.  Some will wind up going back into the desk... some into my memory box.  Others?  Geez.  I'm telling myself I need to live by the rule that if it hasn't been used in a year, get rid of it.

But... who knows when you'll NEED some of this stuff!