Although always a writer, after teaching English and Women's Studies full-time for 35 years, Dr. Janet Heller found that the rigors of dealing with students left her little time for her own work. Today, she writes full time and runs literature writers' groups for both children and adults.
Your Side Gig
I'm a writer, speaker, and workshop leader.
Tell us a little about your work. I do a lot of public speaking in libraries, schools, bookstores, and at conferences. I do poetry readings, and I read my essays and published fiction for children. I speak about many books and DVDs that help children and families deal with bullying. I do creative writing workshops for both children and adults. Usually, I write at home. I also get great ideas while I'm traveling and often write new work.
What led you to work outside the classroom? I have written poetry and fiction ever since I learned to read. However, I became a serious writer while I was working on my doctorate at the University of Chicago. I started a literary journal called Primavera, and we editors gave one another feedback on our work that helped me to revise my poems, essays, and other work. Some of the Primavera editors and I established a writers critique group that met monthly. I began to publish poems, essays, and fiction in national journals and anthologies in the mid-1970s.
What advice do you have for other teachers who want to do what you do? Find a group of serious authors to critique your work constructively. That will help you to revise and improve your writing. Such a group can be in-person or online.
What's the biggest mistake you've made and what did you learn? Once, I complained vociferously when a radio program's staff members did not respond to an essay that I had submitted and that they had held for a long time. The staff stonewalled and would not work with me. I learned that writers have to be very patient and tactful when dealing with editors, even if the editors are disorganized and unresponsive.
If you could go back and give your 20-year old self some advice, what would it be? Be less impatient, and stay calm with editors whom you need to curry. Life is not always fair, and editors often work very slowly. If your FUTURE self in 20 years could look back at where you are today, what advice might the Future You offer the Current You? Relax more. Sometimes situations ease when you do not push as hard.
Which resources do you rely on the most?
My favorite magazines for writers are The Writer, Poets & Writers, and The Writer’s Chronicle. I also consult Writer’s Market, Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, and Poet’s Market. All of these are published by Writer’s Digest. Many of these publications also have online versions or e-mail listserves to give writers updates on where to send manuscripts.
When are you the happiest? I'm happiest when I'm writing or revising my work. I'm also very happy when I do public speaking, especially when I work with children.
Do you have a favorite quote or expression? Susan B. Anthony said, “Failure is impossible.”
What 2-3 books do you consider must reads? I cannot limit myself to such a small number of books. I love a lot of writers. In general, some modern would-be writers try to write like Shakespeare and avoid reading contemporary literature. That is a mistake. Good authors need to write for living people, not audiences of past centuries. Therefore, we writers need to read modern literature and support living authors by purchasing their books.
If you had to do it all over again, what would you do, be, or try? I think that I would have become a full-time writer and speaker earlier in my career.
What are the 2-3 most important work-related purchases you've made in the last year? I have purchased memoirs by other contemporary writers to give me ideas for my own autobiography. I have also purchased books for children to see what other authors are now publishing.
You're being shot at dawn; what's your last dinner request?
I want roast beef, broccoli, and brown rice. For dessert, I would eat cashew butter.
Anything else you'd like to share with other teachers who want to follow in your footsteps? Willingness to revise one's work is key to becoming a good writer. The best authors repeatedly revised their poems, essays, and fiction to improve them.
What's one additional question we should ask and how would you respond?
Why do you write? I write because I have a lot of experiences and ideas that I want to share and communicate. Also, I am grateful to my teachers at all levels for encouraging my talent. In 1955, my first-grade teacher dittoed off one of my poems for the class because she liked it so much. That was my first publication–in purple ink!
This teacher profile is part of SimpleK12's Extra Teacher Income series, where we interview educators about the things they're doing outside of the classroom, for both enjoyment and also a little bit of cash. To read more in this series go here, or to suggest your own story and a possible profile, go here.
If you have any questions for Janet Ruth Heller or anything else related to this topic (and there will be more extra teacher income profiles and stories coming soon), please leave them below in the Comments.
For a different extra teacher income story, check on what Heather Brandon (blogging and educational consulting) is up to.
Or, follow along with full-time college prof, Dustin York, and his many side gigs.
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