This was not part of the plan. The plan was… well, there wasn’t much of one, other than to Be A Writer and Write A Book–you know, those things I’d been wanting to do and saying I was going to do since I was five years old.
This plan brought me to where I was a year and a half ago: sitting in my bathrobe under a wobbly ceiling fan in my Phnom Penh apartment, staring at my computer screen. Beside me, a water glass sweat beads of condensation not so dissimilar from those running down my legs. Outside, motorbikes and tuk-tuks and SUVs honked and screeched. In the pauses between the noise, I could hear the small nibbling sound of insects as they chewed through the bamboo chair, leaving little puddles of dust around the legs.
I was a writer, living the life of a writer.
The sweat slid down my leg.
In 2011 I quit my job, sold all my possessions (pretty much just a twelve-year-old car) and moved across the planet with the idea of writing a book. During the course of the writing and research, I’d support myself freelancing—a plan that now seems only somewhat less ludicrous when taken into account that one can live in Phnom Penh for under $1000/month. Moving to Cambodia, I decided, would be the kick-in-the-ass I needed, the make-or-break in my aspirations of writing. I told myself that I would teach “only if I had to.”
If my life as a writer sounds anticlimactic, it’s because it was. Sure, it gave me an excuse to get into adventures and to immerse myself in sketchy situations in the name of having a “cultural experience,” but in Cambodia those experiences grew increasingly unsettling. I got spooked. So I spent a lot of time alone in my apartment, with the AC off to save money, repeatedly checking my email to see if some editor had written me back. I did a lot of writing, but I also did a lot asking—asking to be heard, asking to be let in, asking for validation. I did a lot of reading, examining websites to determine what was publishable, and I did a lot of rewriting, trying to mold my voice into something publishable.
There was not, I should say, a lot of money involved in this scenario, but there was some. There were not a ton of clips garnered, but there were some. I wasn’t a dismal failure as a writer. I just wasn’t happy.
It turned out I hated telling people I was a writer. For the ten years prior, I’d been a waitress or a student or a manager at a Parks & Recs facility. I’d had real work: in-times, hourly wages, sidework, health insurance, human interaction. Now I didn’t have any of those things and when people I met asked me what I did, I felt a void.
The more generous of strangers would be intrigued, ask questions. “How interesting!” they would say. And maybe they would mean it, but I’d want to tell them no—no, it wasn’t interesting. What “being a writer” mostly meant for me was hunching over a computer screen in my apartment, worsening my posture and my inferiority complex. Sucking air and sweating balls in Phnom Penh.
My life as a writer wasn’t just boring; it felt lonely and, worse, useless. If it was so hard to make ends meet; if it was so hard to break in and get your voice heard; if editors were overextended and publications were going under and the gender byline gap was still so gaping and if the stories that were sellable weren’t necessarily the stories I had to tell—what was I doing, really? I couldn’t help but start to feel like the whole thing was more than a touch self-indulgent. Did the world really need another personal essay on trauma, addiction, teenage love, co-dependency, murder/suicide, depression, you-fill-in-the-blank?
Sure, there’s value in sharing one’s stories, in bearing witness, in giving voice to one’s experience. And sure, the questions I was facing were ones a lot of writers encounter, even successful writers. But at the end of the day, sitting in the same bathrobe, hearing the sounds of the same traffic below, I couldn’t really look back on my day and feel like I’d done much of value, added much to the stream of life.
What happened is what happens to most people who have a marginally attainable dream: I got broke. Really broke. I dipped into my savings; my sister wired me money under my nephew’s name. I got a job teaching, evening English classes for teenagers and mornings at an English-language preschool.
Becoming another underqualified teacher in Asia didn’t exactly stoke the flames of my ego. Nor was I a particularly good teacher at first, stumbling over outdated textbooks in a run-down classroom where the electricity constantly cut out, or chasing after twenty-four semi-potty-trained three-year-olds in a classroom the size of my bedroom.
But something began to happen: at the end of the day, I would go home and felt like I’d done something. I maybe hadn’t done it well, but I’d tried to do something for other people, something divorced from my own ego and accomplishments. I’d done something that wasn’t about me. As shitty as my teaching jobs in Cambodia were, the feeling of usefulness was refreshing.
I still hadn’t totally tossed in the towel on my writing career when I decided to toss in the towel on Cambodia. I crammed my remaining belongings into three bags, withdrew my last $400 and bought a one-way bus ticket to Vietnam, a middle-income country where the teaching gigs paid double, where an old friend had a futon and promising leads on work.
“You know you’re doing the right thing when you don’t have to force it, when it just flows.” A friend once told me that and regardless of whether it’s true, I kept thinking about it my first few months in Hanoi. I had even less of a plan there, other than to work and regroup, but within two weeks of arriving I landed three jobs and a tutoring gig. A month later, I moved into a shared house with hot water and a real stove top. By three months, I’d nearly replaced my tapped-out savings.
I was lucky enough to land a part-time job at a reputable international kindergarten, a job I wouldn’t have scored without my friend’s reference and my years working in Parks & Recs. I spent the last school year teaching Gym and Music classes to 100+ kids, of 30+ nationalities. In the afternoons, I tutored middle- and high-schoolers from the United Nations International School in reading and writing.
I was still writing myself everyday, still sending pitches, still publishing here and there. Vela expanded and I took on more editorial work. I began manning the Twitter feed, which gave me an excuse to read more online longform narrative and become more engaged with the literary community.
Despite these things, something began to change: when people asked me what I did—not what I did for work or what I did for money, but just what I did—I’d say I was a teacher.
I told myself it was because I didn’t want to get into lengthy conversations about what I wrote. I told myself it was because calling oneself a writer felt too precious, like too much to divulge to a stranger, and not entirely accurate. But the truth is, when someone asked what I did, I felt like the thing I did of importance and value wasn’t writing. It was teaching.
Let’s be clear: being a kindergarten teacher is not sexy or glamorous. It’s not a way to impress people at cocktail parties. I meet people who crinkle their noses and exclaim, “How cute!” in a drippingly condescending tone, and quite frankly that’s good for my ego. It’s hard to get have your head too far up your own ass when you’re wiping a two-year-old’s. It’s hard to feel like an important thinker when you’re singing Wheels on the Bus, and it’s hard to tell yourself you’re a mover and shaker in the literary world when the most fun you have all day is dancing to Shake Your Sillies Out. And honestly, that feels good to me: that there’s a place where I’m none of those things, where the only thing that matters is that I’m present and I’m attentive and I’m acting as a guide for these little people who need so much for me to be there.
I realized that as a teacher, I don’t ever ask that question that plagued me as a writer: if what I’m doing matters. It’s not a question I even have to ask. Every morning those kids come in and they’re excited to see me and tell me things, even if it’s just that they have a duck on their t-shirt. The fact that I’m there matters to them, and the work we do is important to them—so important that I never have to wonder, never have to feel like a self-indulgent lump sucking up air.
Last month I signed my first-ever work contract. I’ll be teaching full-time next school year, with my own class. It’ll be the first time in my life that I have paid holidays and sick leave, and the first time I’ll be working a Monday-Friday, 8-4. Of course, it also means I’ll have a lot less time to write, but I’m feeling pretty okay about that. More than okay actually—I’m excited.
I hear a lot of writers talk about teaching as a last resort or as something one has to do until one makes it. Saying a writer “still has to teach” can often be stand-in for saying they haven’t succeeded, insinuating that if one were truly successful, they wouldn’t “need to teach.” At least that’s what I used to think. But now teaching seems like something else to me: an antidote for my own personal narrative.
I’m not going to stop writing. But if I’m gonna keep sending pitches and submissions, if I’m gonna keep soldiering through rejections, if I’m gonna spend the hours alone, if I’m gonna keep finding myself hunched over computer screens on different crappy desks on different parts of the planet—I sure as hell better be doing something productive to counter that. And I’ve found it.
And the fact that it actually pays the rent is nice too.
I relate strongly to much of this.
I’ve come to believe that ‘meaning’ is not so much about what you do, as who you are while you do it. Though if we were going to rank jobs according to some sense of meaning, teaching would be very high on my list.
And fwiw, I’d much rather there were more essays on you-fill-in-the-blank, than another unnecessary social network, or headache pill, or consultant, or brand of (sweat-shop) sneakers. (Though it does of course depend on the type of writing — too many more listicles or productivity self-massage & I might need that headache pill.)
As I wrote in a post on Medium yesterday, I think writing for yourself really is the key to finding ‘meaning’ in your own writing. (Cliched, I know, but it took me a long time to really get this.) I mean, most of us aren’t going to make a living writing what we want to write — there just isn’t a market for it. Having a regular income from something that you enjoy (and which, dare I say it, has meaning), and which frees up your space to write what you want to write, is an enviable situation.
I’m super-stoked you have found a more fulfilling direction. Best of luck!
There’s no shame in having a day job to pay bills and help keep you on a routine while you go after your passions. You’d be surprised what you learn about yourself and others. The kids will teach you a lot!
Eek. I’m relating to far too much of this, too. But I don’t feel ready to give up on the writing dream just yet, even as I sweat it out in a Spanish flat sans airconditioning and watch my savings tumble from my bank account into the Never Never. Also, I don’t like kids that much. ;)
Great, honest writing, Lauren. Thanks for your insights and for showing that the world doesn’t end if you decide to write and do something else at the same time.
I get it. I totally, completely get it. But you’re a wicked storyteller. I’ve followed your words for a couple years now, and feel compelled to let you know that what you do/write/say does matter. If anything, essays like yours are an antidote to my own personal narrative. It’s a relief to know that there are others on the same trajectory as me. I hope you keep sharing with us.