Reflections on a quasi-literary livelihood
Often when I write an answer on Quora, it’s out of irritation. I’m a sucker for a trollish question. Usually, I end up wondering ‘Why, Steve? Why??’ as my impassioned answer languishes in a dusty corner of Quora with 0 upvotes.
More rarely, Quora can be a lot of fun. Just often enough to keep me hooked.
Thus I enjoyed answering ‘By describing it badly, what is your job?’ a while back:
I sit in my office typing words into a computer for two or three hours a day. Then I go off and do other things. I might come back later and type some more words and look at stuff on the internet. That might give me more ideas for words to type.
When I’ve got enough words together, I email them to someone on the other side of the world. They change some of the words, or ask me to change some words. This may go on for some time.
Then they send my words to another person who makes them look pretty.
When they’re pretty enough, and possibly even all in the right place, they get sent to a company which transfers them onto sheets of paper. The sheets of paper are stuck together and sent to kids at school. They have to read the words, and often write or say other words just because I told them to. Ha!
Once a year I get money for this.
You got it: I’m a language coursebook writer (English and German) for vocational schools. Isn’t it obvious?
Licensed to dabble
It’s a job that has served me well over the last quarter century, but I guess it is rather an odd sort of job, even without the absurdist slant I gave it in my Quora answer.
One of the best aspects is that I get to poke my nose into all sorts of subjects and find out just a little about them. From development aid projects in Bangladesh to festivals in Colorado; from solar hot water systems to event management; from community gardens in Berlin to Welcome to Country ceremonies in Canberra. I’m a fifth-degree black belt in snippets of information; a ninja of facts.
I love how Modern Languages curricula these days are about real life, and furnishing students with the language to talk about it. No longer the dry-and-dusty literary translation exercises of my own youth, nor the ho-hum ‘adventures’ of squeaky clean pre-teens Hans and Lotte. Or whatever the hell their names were, the tedious little prigs.
A lot of my material is authentic, drawn from the world’s news websites, from young adult fiction, from tourist information and NGOs. I like to keep the Rights Acquisition department busy. They probably hate me.
Fun with fiction
I also enjoy the opportunities my job affords me to write fiction. No great literary masterpieces, I fear; but diverse characters, hopefully facing real-life predicaments and having the sorts of downright odd conversations that real people have.
My favourite characters include hapless boyfriends and their unimpressed partners; teenagers embarking upon spectacularly ill-considered adventures as only teens can; students with ‘attitude’ shaking up their complacent school administrations. I get to write short stories, blogs, dialogues aplenty, comic strips and occasional videos.
A cunning plan?
Nevertheless: no matter how much I enjoy my job, and how varied and challenging it may be, we come to one inescapable fact. Twenty-five years is a long time. A long, long, long time.
Which is why I’m here, really. My tentative – probably half-arsed – plan is to transition gently from a coursebook writer who writes occasional fiction to a fiction writer who occasionally writes coursebooks.
Fingers crossed … I ain’t giving up the day gig just yet.
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