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.

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