Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Eggs in Two Baskets

It's been a while since I had a guest post, so I'm extra thrilled to have this one from Claudia Mills. We met at a children's book festival in Missouri and have been cyber-friends ever since.

The thing I like best about having a day job in addition to my writing career is the comfort of not having all my eggs in one basket. Here I’m thinking not so much of monetary eggs, but of the kind of eggs that entitle one to brag or boast or at the least to give oneself occasional comforting pats on the back. Because I am both a children’s book author and a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I can pat myself on the back as either one, especially if I’m slogging through discouragement in the other.

If I get a snarky review of one of my books, I can tell myself, “Well, I’m a tenured professor of philosophy, so there!” And if I get a snarky teaching evaluation from one of my students, I can tell myself, “Well, I’m the author of almost fifty children’s books, so there!” I always have an excuse at the ready for why I’m not more famous or successful in either profession. For although I’ve had a good double career, all things considered, I’m languishing in my academic career at the Associate Professor level (where Full Professor is the best), and in my writing career I’m definitely what’s known as a “midlist” author. No gold seals of major awards emblazon the front covers of my books; no bestseller lists carry my name. But, hey, for someone who has to balance the demands of two careers (plus, for a couple of decades, the demands of a family) I’m doing pretty darned well.

The thing I like least about having a day job is wondering if I could be more successful as an author if I devoted my whole heart to my writing. Would I win the Newbery then? Would my books be read by millions of children? I’ve written a heap of books while writing just an hour a day, so quantity hasn’t been a problem for me with a part-time writing schedule. But would I write better books if I had lovely meadow-like expanses of time stretching before me each day? I don’t know. I certainly don’t think I’ve ever cut any corners on a book, ever dashed something off just to get it done under a tight time constraint. My books have always been as good as I could possibly make them. But would I be able to make them better if I had more time to dream and “moodle” (as Brenda Ueland calls it in If You Want to Write)? Perhaps.

Yet, looking at the lives of my friends who write full time, I have to say that most of them are not luxuriating in lovely meadow-like days. With pressures to earn the money that my day job provides me, they spend much of their time at school visits, self-promotion, and other tasks of the writing life that are decidedly not dreaming or moodling, not to mention writing. Still, those activities – time spent with children, teachers, and librarians, time spent networking with other writers – might help me to grow as a writer. Plus, they can be fun activities in their own right.

So . . . if I thought I could write not more books but better books by quitting my day job, I’d be terribly tempted. But what if I gave my writing my all, and I was still a cheerful, striving midlist author and not the Next Great Thing? Without even a self-congratulatory excuse to make myself feel better?

I’d give up having eggs in two baskets if I could have better, fresher, altogether more gorgeous eggs in my writing basket. But would I? I know the only way to find out is to try it and see. Maybe, one of these days, I will.

Claudia Mills is the author of over 50 books for young readers, including picture books (Ziggy’s Blue-Ribbon Day), easy readers (the ten books of the Gus and Grandpa series), chapter books (Fractions = Trouble!, Being Teddy Roosevelt, How Oliver Olson Changed the World), and middle-grade novels (The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary of Amanda MacLeish, One Square Inch).  Recently, How Oliver Olson Changed the World was named an ALA Notable Book of the Year, as well as a Blue Ribbon book by the Bulletin from the Center for Children’s Books and finalist for a Cybil Award. Claudia, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University, also has a full-time position as a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and has published many scholarly articles on ethical and philosophical themes in children’s literature. Visit her website and her blog.