Wednesday, November 5, 2008


“What should I blog about this month?” I asked my 10-year-old, who was standing outside in the backyard wearing a black T-shirt his college age sister had given to him over the weekend when she was home visiting. The shirt said Nine Inch Nails, which I knew was a band, but I wasn’t really sure what they played. I’d been so distracted I’d let Sam wear it to fifth grade, then worried all day they’d send him to the office for promoting some band who sings nasty lyrics. The point is I’d been too busy to look into this band because of a reason I’ll reveal to you in just a bit.
“Why don’t you blog about how Jake is smarter than you,” said Sam, glancing over at our Australian Shepherd mix who was reclining beneath a sweet gum, “and how it’s actually him who writes your books.”
I looked at Sam. He was smiling playfully, but a part of me wondered if he wasn’t just a little bit serious.
About six months before came a really low spot in my writing career. I had spent the past three years doing interminable editing for a novel as it went through three editors (they kept getting pregnant), promoting that book when it finally came out, and then writing two more novels which still needed to be sold (my agent and I had parted, amicably). So, I was in that awful, awful spot of hunting a new agent. There was a lot of sitting on my hands waiting for queries to be received and read by potential agents, then hopefully for agents or request manuscript pages to be pondered. I am terrible at waiting for things and plus I had next to no money to entertain myself with. My husband had been very supportive during these three years, but we do have a mortgage among other bills, and we’re still paying for two teenage kids’ braces, and I promised him I wouldn’t write another novel till I’d sold those two. I also said I’d look for A REAL JOB.
I wrote out a script to help me and I began the calls. Calls to friends, to acquaintances, then to complete strangers. I called bookstores, libraries, small presses and publishers, anything I could think of in the book/writing industry. They were all dead-ends. Finally I called the Journalism School at UGA where I’d gotten my degree back in 1985. I recalled that they had since added a degree in Creative Writing. I decided I should go back to school to get my Master’s in Creative Writing. I sent some emails and waited. There came a nice week or so of picturing myself taking two interminable years of writing classes (can you see me smiling? I was absolutely positive that would not be like work at all!) and then I’d end up in the cushy job of writing professor; critiquing manuscripts and guiding writers (this too didn’t sound a thing like work).
Until. Until I began a conversation about the job opportunities at the end of this degree. I spoke with the head of Creative Writing at UGA. “I don’t want to discourage you, Julie,” she said, “but you really need a PhD, in both Creative Writing and in Literature to be able to get a job, and even then the job positions are highly competitive.”
I grieved. I whined. I ate a lot of junk food like burgers and chocolate. I read a bunch of novels. I even secretly started writing a new one. But that specter of having to find a job crept along at my heels so that I enjoyed none of it fully. “Please God,” I prayed, “send me the right agent right now! Because if I had the right agent, then I wouldn’t have to hunt a job. I could just send him /her my two novels and wait till he/she sold it and then do the editing and the promoting, etc.... I promise I’ll only write nice stuff. Really really meaningful stuff that won’t lead folks down the wrong path, and I’ll give some money from my book advances to the poor folks in Myanmar...”
Days passed, then weeks. I hovered like a vulture over my email box, waiting. I lost my perspective on how blessed I’ve been with the opportunity to do the thing I absolutely love to write stories. Finally, one Sunday afternoon I went to my folks’ house for dinner. With a nice full belly I went to their den to digest and relax in the La-Z-Boy. They live in the county next door to mine and they subscribe to the Athens Banner-Herald, so idly I picked up the nice, fat Sunday edition to peruse the classifieds. That was when I saw it. THE PERFECT JOB! It was forty hours a week at a fine wage. It required a four-year college degree, and that you pass an ability test. The beautiful thing was that it was only five weeks long!
Plus, it was kind of to do with writing. What the job was was scoring essays (some people call it rating) for the state of Georgia. These were essays written by 11th grade high school students, ranging in age from 16-20. To graduate from high school a student must write an essay on an assigned subject, called a prompt, and must pass with an acceptable score in four different domains; Ideas, Organization, Style, and Conventions. The essay scorer gets a rubric for each domain. Each of these has five possible scores ranging from “little or no capability” to “complete mastery.”
“Well, a real job will be good for you,” my husband said the night before I was to begin. “You wouldn’t have much to write about if you didn’t get out there and experience life, now would you?” I frowned at him. I had a real job. A job writing books, which if any of you do this, you know what I’m talking about. But I didn’t argue with him. Instead, I set my alarm early as I had to feed breakfast to four people, two cats, and Jake, and pack four lunches before 7:30 A.M.
I entered the huge scoring room for training that morning and found that my hundred or so other fellow scorers were computer instructors, retirees, UGA students, teachers who had quit teaching for various reasons, musicians, D.J’s, out-of-work accountants, mothers, etc.. I decided I would become a scoring superstar during my days, and come evenings I could work on my novel writing career. Ha! By the time I got home, sometime between 6:00 and 7:00 P.M. each night depending on where we had to pick Sam up, it was time to fix supper, clean that up, oversee homework, baths, and do what minimal laundry and mail couldn’t wait till the weekend. I was exhausted. I had no time to do things like write, play with Sam or Jake, or check out the band Nine Inch Nails.
What made the job harder was that on the second day I was scoring essays I got offers from two agents and I had to stifle the urge to quit. It wasn’t that hard because there was still that pesky little matter of needing to earn some money. I stayed and I enjoyed it, too. The essay prompt I was scoring asked students if the driving age in Georgia should be raised, lowered, or remain the same. Many essays were nondescript, the kind with five paragraphs in text-book fashion, but some were amazing! Some were written as brilliant narratives that took my breath away. They were gripping and made the hours fly by. I marveled at the talent and I took mental notes. I collected unusual names.
Then there was the joy of having work associates. We couldn’t talk in the scoring room, but in the breakroom we could exchange wonderful stories we’d read from high school students’ essays, as well as our own.
My job just ended and I’ve returned to the life of a full-time writer. I’ve been walking around the house between writing and editing jags, saying, “Oh, thank God for that wonderful experience!” and in the very next breath, “Oh, thank God, I’m done with that!”

Click HERE to read more about Julie L. Cannon and her books.


Anonymous said...

Great essay. I laughed a lot. I disagree with the advice you got. As a published author, a MFA would be sufficient to teach.

Kerry Madden said...

Wonderful essay! I think in certain respects many of us are living the same life. Thank you so much. I really related! Kids, job, money, hovering over the inbox for hope.

And you made me laugh.

Many thanks!