Keepers and seekers - how I think writing is (and isn't) like other jobs, by Deborah Jenkins

There are times when writing feels so different to other jobs. Many of us work as well as write - teaching, parenting, ministering, catering, tutoring, running a business. These are just some of the jobs I know ACW people do. I teach part-time, and often find myself comparing teaching and writing. I used to teach more than I write but since moving to Sussex, the balance has reversed. This has been a huge blessing but there have been challenges too. Sometimes it helps me to think about my writing work in the same way as my other job, sometimes not. It made me wonder if it might help others too...

How teaching and writing are the same

1. When I started teaching, it will come as no surprise to you that I didn't suddenly become good at it. Actually, I was terrible. But I watched others and asked questions and made mistakes and embarrassed myself and looked at other people's classrooms/books/planning. And I learned. 37 years later, I think I am a good teacher. I have bad days but on the whole I pretty much know what I'm doing. The received wisdom about the best pedagogy and methodology and delivery may come and go but I can say with confidence now that I know how children learn.

Writing is like that. The occasional person achieves their dream quickly, just like the occasional new teacher rising at speed to deputy. But mostly, it's watching others and asking questions and making mistakes and embarrassing ourselves and looking at other people's writing/marketing/portfolio. And learning. It may not take 37 years to achieve our writing dreams (though it has actually taken me longer, if I'm honest) but it very, very rarely happens overnight. Like any other job, it is a combination of hard graft, humility and determination. That and cheesecake/chocolate/prayer - however you take comfort.

2. I could never have succeeded in the different teaching roles I've taken on if it hadn't been for the amazing people I've worked with. A think of a Year 4 colleague who, when I was struggling, kept reminding me of the things I was good at, a deputy who encouraged me to take on responsibility and affirmed my efforts; a Year 6 colleague who, after I left class teaching, went out of her way to make me feel part of 'the team'. But there are so many...These people were 'keepers of the keys' for success in teaching. They had worked hard and learned a lot and they wanted to pass it on. They were willing to share their time, experience and encouragement with me so I could learn and improve too. 

It's the same with writing. I might have given up if it hadn't been for one longstanding writer-friend who does so much to encourage me and a writing group in which we support each other, make each other laugh and express outrage on each other's behalf because SOME people don't seem to appreciate our genius (can you believe it?) I have another group where we report our daily word count, share experiences of submission/publication and generally hoot with laughter. As with teaching, these writing colleagues have become dear friends, sharing so much more than writing.

3. In teaching, over the years, my pay has rarely related to the amount of effort I put in. I don't think teaching is particularly badly paid these days (it used to be). But I've always put in way more hours than I'm actually paid for. I used to work evenings and weekends and, contrary to what some think, during the holidays too. I did this because I love children, long to see them succeed and care about doing a good job.

My writing is like this too. Sometimes I make money from it but if I limited my writing to money-making opportunities, I would lose out. Like teaching, the amount of money I earn is not related to the effort I put in. I spend as long on a free piece, for a blog or an organisation I care about, as I would on something paid. And it's for the same reasons. I love writing and I want to do the best I can. I want to entertain or inform or inspire or help people who read my stuff. I also want to become a better writer and the more I write, paid or non-paid, fiction or non-fiction, commissioned or pitched, the more I will develop and broaden my ability and experience as a writer. Incidentally, writing a couple of 'free' pieces for one organisation led to well-paid work from them at a later date. That doesn't mean I take on everything I'm asked to, by the way. I'm choosy about where to invest my time, but when I've accepted something, I do it with all my heart.

How teaching and writing differ

1. With teaching, success is easier to define, at least as far as the establishment is concerned, and often as far as teachers are concerned too. At the beginning of a lesson, if a child doesn't understand how to find equivalent fractions, but by the end of the lesson, she does, you know you've had a successful lesson.

With writing, success is harder to define. Whatever your objective (to publish a novel/write self-help books/win a poetry competition) there will probably be many steps along the way: writing short stories/starting a blog/refining your poetic style). Success is likely to be longer term. In the meantime, you have to find 'markers' on the journey which encourage and build you up: someone likes your short story/your blog stats improve/your poem gets a good response in the church magazine.

For some writers, the process of writing and sharing our pieces is enough.. We don't want the stress of seeking a wider audience. We write for our blogs/our friends/our local free paper. I was like this for many years. Seasons come and go with writing. But some seasons stay, and that's okay. 

Success in writing is harder to define and it will be different for every writer.

2. From the outset, teaching is a team activity. You are mentored from the start, with varying degrees of  success (!) and you collaborate with other teachers all the way through your career.

On the other hand, writing is, a lot of the time, an essentially individual activity, involving you, your computer/typewriter/notebook and a series of ideas which may or may not end up being read by anyone. This can make writing quite lonely and isolating particularly when things are not going well. We're often not always good at reaching out to people at these times anyway, preferring to endure the pain alone and only sharing when it's over. Crazy really, as the time we need the support most, is when we're going through the rejection/writers' block/rewrites.

 In many jobs, team work is required. With writing, at least in the early stages, it isn't, but even if not a perceived need, we really, really need it (See 2b above)

3. With teaching, we get regular feedback on our efforts (whether we want it or not!). Observations, learning walks, MockSTEDs, OFSTEDS are somehow endured. Cards from children or parents, small tokens of appreciation at Christmas or the end of the year, notes from colleagues: these are usually supportive and always welcome.

With writing, feedback can be patchy. People are often reluctant to comment on a post, review a book or share your work with friends, even when politely asked to do so. This means we need an extraordinary amount of brazen determination in this job at times. I am not good at this but I am learning from others (2b, again).

* A wise agent once told me that although a certain proposal was unlikely to be published due to market tendencies, I should never underestimate the God-factor. He turned out to be right. So I'm passing his advice on. Wherever you are in your writing journey, remember this.

Are you a keeper of the keys or a pilgrim seeking them? You know, I think all of us, at least to some extent, are both. Or should be...

Godspeed with your writing 😊

Deborah Jenkins is the author of textbooks, educational articles and a novella ,The Evenness of Things, available in paperback and as a kindle e-book. 

Her novel, Braver, will be published in the summer of 2022 by Fairlight Books.

Deborah wonders aloud about the crazy, inspiring and inappropriate, on her blog,

Post a Comment