Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Weird Things My Students Have Been Told About Writers

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Weird Things My Students Have Been Told About Writers

The classic flippant answer to “Where do you get your ideas?”

Most of my students and their families have perfectly ordinary misperceptions about how books come into the world. They ask what non-writers ask–where do ideas come from, that kind of thing. They’re not sure whether they expect all writers to be starving or loaded, but they’re pretty sure it’s all one or the other. Writing professionally is something that other people do in some other world, not something mere mortals who stand in their kitchens might do. That’s okay. They’re kind people who care about being literate in the best, most expansive sense. Yay them.

And then, there are the outliers.

Allow me to introduce the Client Mom from Hell.

It was my first freelance tutoring gig. My student was a charming sixth-grader who had somehow talked me into reading Redwall with him. There are people who love Redwall, which is fine, but it’s just not my thing. So my student asked me how I would write about a book I just didn’t like, since he had to do that at school all the time. A good, practical question.

“I try to set aside what I want in a book,” I said, “and to think about what the author was trying to accomplish. He didn’t write this story the way I would have, but he must have had a reason for writing it the way he did.”

The Client Mom from Hell dropped whatever she was doing in the kitchen and blustered into the dining room to interrupt our lesson.

“Money,” she said. “They all do it for money. Why else would anybody write books?”

Writing books is one of the least efficient, least reliable ways of getting money that our economy offers. A writer of my acquaintance, a guy who plays at the top of the game and publishes in all the cool places, estimates that his fiction brings in about five dollars an hour. Honestly, I’d be thrilled and astonished if I ever did that well.

The cave painters and the hunters they painted probably had weird ideas about one another’s professions, too.

The first gig I ever refused was offered by a Client Dad from Hell who informed his children that they had all better be published authors before it came time to apply to college. They would never get into college without major publication credits, he said, so they’d better get cracking. The kids were in junior high. I tried to tell the Client Dad from Hell that pressuring his kids in this way would damage their writing abilities more than just about anything else anyone could do to them. I’m sure he found someone else to take the job. What happened to those kids, I do not know.

I shouldn’t be surprised. Different people project their inner weirdnesses onto police officers, lawyers, critics, whatever. Personally, I project my inner weirdness onto doctors. Probably every kind of work on earth has somebody who’s weird about it despite not actually engaging in it. Still, it’s a shock to be on the receiving end of some layperson’s major insecurities about writers, and more of a shock to receive it while trying to teach writing to their children.


Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.

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