teaching vs writing

Teaching and writing go together like cake and icing, like chips and vinegar, like cheese and jam. We writers are drawn to teaching for good reasons: we get to talk about books all day, we get nice long holidays, we get the sort of autonomy and independence we awkward types love. In my workroom there are two writers, me included, amongst the staff. The staff member I replaced is also a writer, who left to pursue her successful work in poetry.

But it’s not easy. Stephen King says teaching “sucks away the creative juices and slows production.” It’s true. Writing novels is slow work, anyway. But when you’re teaching all day, coming home and cranking out a couple of hundred words might take you hours. I sometimes find myself just gazing at the screen as the letters dance around. Sometimes I type with my eyes closed. (Free advice: Anything you write whilst you’re actually asleep is unlikely to be your best work.)

Working full time in any job is demanding, and I don’t think teachers are uniquely hard done by. I’ve worked as a secretary, as a picker in a factory, as a cleaner, a cook, a copywriter, a cold caller. Each of those jobs was hard for different reasons. And I know I’m lucky to have a job which is reasonably well paid and which I enjoy.

But… (you knew it was coming)… but… GOD, is it exhausting, dealing with people all day long. Thinking about what they need from you, what you can do to get through their barriers, what you can do to inspire them, what you can do to help them achieve. Thinking about if you’ve done enough, if you’ve done wrong. Having to summon the patience for dealing with people who, really, really, make you wonder. About their motives, about their personalities. Dealing with the fact that most of the people you work with neither notice nor care about how hard you work or how much of your life you are giving them.

The thing is, when you are a writer, the people that you most want and need to think about are the imaginary people in your head. And those people, your people, get pushed out and squeezed right to the edges as your brain fills up with more and more and more of this everyday crap. You neglect your imaginary people, and you neglect friends and family, too. There’s just not enough time for everyone. You need a bigger brain, to accommodate everything that’s in it.

I’m not going to stop teaching or writing – I can’t afford to give up either. And I don’t know what the solution is, except to just keep trying. Just keep believing that there will come a day when it all falls into place. When all this hard work will pay off.


2 Replies to “teaching vs writing”

  1. I taught for a few years and enjoyed it but it was exhausting and by the end of it I burned out and by ‘burned out’ I don’t mean in that had-a-touch-of-the-flu way people talk. Looking back it was obvious from the jump where I was heading—no one can work that many hours and expect to get away scot-free—but that’s just my nature and no sooner was I back in the saddle—different job, same saddle—I proceeded to do exactly the same and seven years later the same happened only even worse. Oh well. Now I spend most of my time alone or with my wife and all I have to worry about… well, actually I have nothing to worry about. And I’ve never been less productive. I don’t count the blog. I suppose I should count the blog—there’re hundreds of thousands of words there—but I don’t really think of that as real writing; it’s just something I do while I’m not writing. But here’s the thing: it’s a distraction. Oddly enough teaching wasn’t. I wrote novels and stories and poems and plays while I was working myself into the ground. (Note to self: Probably should’ve slept more.) I used to dream about the life I’m living now. All I can say is: Be careful what you wish for. The thing I forgot about is how this writing malarkey works. Your brain needs stimulation. Now I would’ve thought that what with all the books I read and TV shows and films I watch and all the time spent on the Internet If anything I was OVERstimulated—it certainly feels like it most of the time—but maybe it’s not the right kind of stimulation. I don’t know. It wasn’t as if I incorporated all the people I randomly encountered in my day to day life into my writing because I never did. I never thought I did. Maybe there’s more there than I realised; it’s just gone through the mincer and is unrecognisable.

  2. I know what you mean, Jim. I’ve found that the more time I have, the less I write – unless there’s a sort of inbuilt limitation (like a summer holiday) where I can say, I have to write X number of words before going back to work. Writers who don’t work at all can sometimes be a bit insular, a bit limited in their scope. You get a lot of stories about writers (I like those, though, because I am one!)

    I’m very much an introvert, and being around people all day and having to be ‘on’ is seriously exhausting. On the other hand, if I’m not working, I can easily go weeks without talking to anyone, which is not good for me, either.

    I have an idea what the ideal solution is for me, but it involves quite a few more years of hard work before I’m anywhere near this.

    By the way, you should definitely count your blog as part of your output! Your blog is full of great stuff.

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