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Thursday, July 21, 2011

My alter-ego: Grammar Girl

Here's a secret. I'm not just a fiction writer. I also write teaching materials for students who are learning English as a second or other language. Which I guess is a fancy way of saying I write grammar books. Believe me, this confession has killed many conversations at parties. Suddenly self-conscious about their use of standard English, people tend to clam up around me, just like someone with food on her teeth might not smile at the dentist. Or the interested people might venture linguistic questions, ranging from who vs. whom to more complex matters of sentence parsing and the history of the English language. (Of which I am not an expert).

Most often, I get blank stares, polite smiles, so I don't talk about this line of work in public too much, even though it's been my bread-and-butter money for years. Even though a lot of the projects I work on are really fascinating, and have helped my fiction writing. For example, one summer I got to travel to New York almost every week to work with a film production studio on a DVD series accompanying a textbook series I co-authored. I got to help choose actors for an ensemble cast, brainstorm character and plot developments, and even write scripts. That experience taught me so much about managing scenes in fiction -- getting to the action quickly -- and writing concisely. Sentence parsing? Times have changed. These aren't your mother's grammar books.

Anyway, these days, fiction writing has taken over much of my work time. So between phases of edits on my novel, or new chapters on my work in progress, I return to a teacher's guide project I'm contracted for this summer. Sometimes having a day job that involves writing is exhausting. Sometimes the last thing you want to do after a day of writing is write some more, especially when most of America is watching prime time television or Netflix movies. But this one's a relatively straightforward task, and it is also a relief to do something with very clear parameters. It's refreshing to work on problems that have specific answers, which can be listed in an Answer Key and cross-referenced in an index.

There are no answer keys when you write a novel. You might have an outline or Table of Contents, like a textbook, but often you deviate from it. I have a road map for this project, and I find it soothing.

And when it's time to throw the map out the window and switch gears, I'll return to my novel -- the one in progress or the one I'm editing -- refreshed, ready to leave the relative safety of a textbook for the open road again.

Does your day job enhance your writing life or deplete it? What do you think are the best day jobs for writers or other creative types?

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