Monday, March 15, 2010

Job Description

For all the Johanna Hurwitz fans out there (me, me, me!) and those with tween readers who may have missed it, check out Carmela's interview for our fab new book giveaway.  Lots of great questions have been posted already. 

I am the sole, lame Teaching Author who will be sitting on her butt (butt in chair -- hey!) next week while my cohorts do the heavy lifting of presenting at the Illinois Reading Council Conference this week. 

Between my full-time job of writing soap operas and my part-time job of teaching college and my part-part-time gig writing articles and that 24/7 job of raising children, I have found my travels to be severely curtailed for the last few years.  Note that the one job that I did not mention is, yes, writing books -- of which I have done precious little of late.

My college students are, as I write this, working busily (I hope) on their definition essays.  I have to confess, this is my very favorite type of essay to assign.  As I tell my students, words are powerful; words can be the most potent weapons on earth -- whether you are six or sixty.  Does anyone believe that old chestnut about "sticks and stones"?

The public discourse, it seems to me, has devolved into a series of loaded words being flung back and forth with increasing frequency.  Am I alone in wanting these verbal missles to be channeled into a productive discussion?  Please define "victory."  Define "terrorism."  Define "socialism." Define "anti-American" and explain how it differs from "anti-government."  There are important distinctions to be made; there are substantive arguments to be made on both sides of every issue.  And yet, it seems, that all we do is shout the same words over and over until they lose all real meaning.

It took me many years of working as a writer and a secretary, a writer and a transcriptionist, a writer and a go-fer, for me to finally be able to call myself a "writer."  This transition happened in my mind not when I published my first article or my first book (as I had always imagined it would) but when I was finally able to earn my living consistently as a writer.  Unfortunately, as a professional soap opera writer, my job security is nil.  And a funny thing happened when I lost my job a few years back.  I have not been writing or selling books for awhile (see above) and have never earned more than a pittance doing so, anyway.  Can I continue calling myself a writer if I'm not being paid to write?  And if I am not a professional writer -- what am I?

This evening I was putting my daughter to bed and reading to her from Meet Kit, the first in the American Girl series that takes place during the Great Depression.  Very early in Chapter 1, it is established that one of the characters' husbands has been unemployed for two years, and the family has lost their home.  My daughter, Kate, said, "That's terrible that he lost his job.  But this is just a made-up story, right?"  I assured her that it was and continued reading.  A moment later, she interrupted, "But do people really lose their jobs?"  I said that yes, they do.  Then, "Are you going to lose your job, Mommy?"  (Now, full disclosure.  When I am on a deadline on a childcare-free day and my daughter is making her two thousandth demand of the day in full whine, I have been known to threaten that noncompliance will result in my unemployment, which will have dire effects on her toy collection.)  So I explained to Kate tonight that yes, someday Mommy will probably lose her job.  And she cried.  And she cried and cried and cried.  And I thought -- couldn't I have just said that Mommy will always have a job?  I will always, always be her mommy.  And, honestly, after all this time, is there any going back?  Whether I am a soap opera writer, I will always be a writer. 

I FINALLY, after lo these many years, completed a mystery manuscript that's rapidly going nowhere.  I recently got some professional feedback and am excited to have a clue what to do with it.  So there's another two years of my life to invest in a manuscript that may never be read outside a very small circle of friends and critics.  It is hard, I now realize, to turn down paying work, to believe in oneself enough to risk zero return on a huge investment of time and energy and heart. 

I just finished reading a rough draft of a student's essay on the definition of courage.  It takes courage to be a writer.  COURAGE to us all.

And does anyone know a really good online critique group?  Because I could surely use one! 
--Jeanne Marie


Michelle Sussman said...

What a great post Jeanne Marie! I've been writing for magazines for years. While it wasn't enough to support my family, I was making a steady income. In 2009 I took a break from paid work to write a novel. I made less than $1,000 last year (cringe) and lately I wondered if I wasted good writing time.

Two weeks ago an agent requested a partial of my novel. For the first time I felt validated that last year's self-imposed reduction in income was a good choice. I'm an at-home mom and my writing time comprimses no more than a couple hours a day.

This agent may not offer representation but knowing she liked my sample pages enough to request more tells me I'm on the right track and I'm going to continue to concentrate on my fiction. :)

And yes, I'm in an awesome online critique group. Drop me a message on Facebook if you want to know more. :)

Carmela Martino said...

Jeanne Marie,
We are going to miss you at the conference, but your time to join us will come!
I, too, am struggling to call myself a "writer" some days as I work on finishing the revision of my novel-in-progress. Those doubts keep creeping in--is this any good? is it marketable? should I look for a full-time teaching job? etc. Yet I continue to try to keep "butt in chair." Some days, I'm not sure if this is the definition of "persistence" or "insanity." :-)

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Jeanne Marie!
I suspect numerous writers will print out today's honest post and keep it atop their desks.
It's so hard to do what we do, i.e. write, when no one's asked us to!
I define "writer" by the verb + its suffice: a person who writes.
Speaking of soap operas, I proudly am the Susan Lucci of Children's Books - writing 19 years on task before my first trade picture book was published.
I wasn't that awful, actually; I was simply on a quest to uncover my voice.
And, speaking of courage, I reread William Steig's Brave Irene every 3 months or so to keep me on my plotline.
Again, thanks for sharing so honestly.
We'll miss you in Springfield at IRC this week!

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Writers are revisers, yes?
So, I need to revise - or rather, correct, my post above. As always, I was typing too fast and didn't proof-read THRICE.

I use the verb (write) + the SUFFIX (er) to define our job: a person who writes. Period.

Heather Hedin Singh said...

Tears came to MY eyes when I read about your daughter's crying. I remember moments like that when, as a child, I suddenly became aware that the world isn't as simple as I thought. (Now I need to go hug my daughter...)

It is so true that you will always be mom just as you will always be a writer because those are the deepest kinds of jobs that affect who you are, not just what you do.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the job description. Good luck with your mystery manuscript!

Doraine said...

Jeanne Marie, Thanks so much for your honest post. I was just sitting at my computer yesterday wondering what in the world do I think I'm doing. It was one of those moments. It's good to know that you're not alone when they hit. Thanks.

Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford said...

Thanks to all of you for letting me know I'm not alone, either! And Michelle -- wow, you go, girl! Please keep us updated. (I will definitely fb you re: the critique group -- thank you!!)

Heather, hearing that my post inspired you to hug your daughter makes this likely the most fulfilling writerly thing I've ever done.

Lisa said...

Love this post. I struggle too!

April Halprin Wayland said...

We hope your ears are burning, Jeanne Marie! All of us Teaching Authors think this was a very, very moving, meaningful and important post. We are humbled and inspired.


Caroline McAlister said...

Dear Jeanne Marie,

I have published two picture books based on folktales, and am trying to write my first middle grade novel. I am attending a workshop in Hillsborough, North Carolina May 1 taught by John Claude Bemis. Anyway, I would be glad to share and critique with you. I have a critique group here, but we are more picture book oriented and I would love to get the opinion of someone else working on a novel, MG or YA. You may contact me on facebook
Caroline McAlister