Several months ago, I was standing in the busy hallway of the high school where I teach when one my colleagues — who has a degree in journalism — sidled up nearby. She asked, “If you could get paid the same amount to write that you are teaching right now, would you do it?”
At this point, some of you might be asking, “Wait, does teaching actually pay more than writing?” For the majority of writers, the answer is, resoundingly: yes, absolutely.* But that aside, her question was a really interesting thought experiment: if I could trade in the classroom and somehow write fiction full-time in such a way as it made as much money as I currently make, would I take that trade?
Now, first off, I should say that I like my day job. I teach high school history and government, and it is meaningful work. I work with a supportive school district and am fortunate to be able to teach courses that I enjoy. I honestly can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. But it’s also hard work. The first day of school is like jumping into a bucket of cold water, and each successive day is a mental, emotional, and physical marathon that has so many moving parts that the job itself might, in fact, be impossible. (That hasn’t stopped me from trying.)
The contrast between teaching and the time I spend writing in the summer is like night and day … no, bigger than that. In the summer, I wake up, roll out of bead, head out to the living room, and type away. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, and I can get up, walk around, and work at a regular pace. I can go for short walks to clear my head, spend time chatting with my wife and kids, and sip tea while looking out the window. No 15-minute lunches, no 2-minute restroom breaks, no trying to help over a hundred students with their own individual challenges.
So the mental and physical disparity between writing and my day job might make the my colleague’s thought experiment tantalizing. Does that mean I’d take it?
I don’t think so, and for a couple of major reasons.
My Day Job Forces Me To Interact With People
I’m an introvert: an INTJ, for you Myers-Briggs folks. My wife (an INFJ) marvels at how long I can go without cabin fever. I’m good for days, really. I love solitude, I love quiet, and I love getting lost in my own thoughts.
But there are a lot of things I love that aren’t good for me in excess. I know this. Even as a person who draws strength from my inner mind, I benefit from being around people. My work forces me to be around people, which helps me in a myriad of ways as a writer, both in how I interface with people as a writer and in the way I think about and construct characters.
And yes, that even includes being around hurtful people. As a teacher, I’ve inevitably had to deal with mean-spirited, angry people, whether they be students or parents. (Oftentimes those people come from very sad backgrounds.) Those experiences are never fun — I’d be lying if I said I’d be disappointed to not have those experiences — but I can say that they have informed my writing and made it better. I can channel the feelings of hurt, for example, more effectively. And I can also channel the feelings of empathy and compassion in the midst of hurt more effectively.
My Day Job Is A Good Changeup from Writing (And Vice Versa)
On one hand, anyone in a vocation where they have to create will tell you that nothing stirs creativity like life experience. It is through a varied world, for example, that a musician or artist draws inspiration. For a writer, this is just as true. Through a job of being around different people facing different circumstances, I’ve been able to generate all kinds of ideas. But my day job also has another unusual creative benefit: it forces distance between myself and my writing. I can’t write when I’m at school, so I have no choice but to get away from my writing projects. That distance has actually helped me to approach projects with a clearer head. It’s like my brain has a chance to percolate.
This cuts both ways. Teaching requires a lot of creativity, too, but it’s a very different sort of creativity, involving lesson plans, student engagement, and other things that have nothing to do with science fiction. I’ve discovered that my writing has — quite to my surprise, actually — helped my teaching. It may be the reverse of what I said earlier, that the escape of writing has helped me put some figurative distance between me and my day job. The result is that when I come to school, my creative juices feel better, I have a better temperament (always crucial!), and I think I just enjoy the experience more.
In short, I have come to understand that there is a powerful symbiotic relationship between my day work and my writing life, with each offering a different environment that, in turn, helps me to appreciate the other. It’s a relationship I intend to keep going.
Unless, maybe, I end up like Andy Weir or something.
* According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “writers and authors” make more than “high school teachers.” There are several pitfalls, however, to assuming that this means a person could quit teaching and make more. For one thing, there is a massive spread in how much writers make, and new writers almost always make a heap less than new teachers. Two, self-employed writers face irregular wages, delays in royalties, and a lack of any benefits outside of ones they purchase. Three, a lot of those writers as categorized by the BLS are employed by a company doing things like corporate newsletters, newspaper reporting, and technical writing, none of which involves novels. After all that, if you don’t believe me, take it from New York Times Bestseller John Scalzi.