A Writers Other Jobs story from J.Y.L. Koh
When I decided, almost two years ago, to pioneer the career move of corporate lawyer to lollipop lady, I became acutely aware that people around me had conflicting opinions as to whether or not I was wasting my potential.
As a twentysomething lawyer in a top-tier Australian firm, I worked in an air-conditioned glass tower alongside hundreds of other people dressed in nice suits. The firm boasted harbour views, an in-house kitchen, catered lunchtime seminars, dinner for those who stayed late, regular firm drinks, charity functions, twilight sailing opportunities, and cleaners who emptied the bins and vacuumed the carpet every night. My colleagues became the greater part of my social life. They worked the same long hours, understood the work I did and were just an internal phone call away whenever I felt like stepping out for a coffee. I was living in a rarefied bubble: with my mind consumed by work, I would sometimes exit the building late at night, hop into a taxi, notice the dampness on the roads and ask the driver if it really had just been raining.
Corporate law turned out to be incompatible with my plans to be a writer of literary fiction. Plenty of authors have been known to complete books while holding down full-time jobs in the legal profession – I just didn’t have the stamina for it. The long hours, the exactness of legal reasoning and the inevitable workplace politics associated with office work all contributed to my profound writer’s block. Even when the firm gave me a part-time position to allow me time to write, I still couldn’t get into the creative headspace once familiar to me. I knew I had to find another job.
So I quit.
On my last day, my favourite colleagues took me out for cocktails. Some of the boys wore dinner jackets to amuse me. It was my last top-tier hurrah.
On a pouring afternoon, two months later, I’m standing at a zebra crossing outside a school, holding a STOP sign. I’m dressed in a fluoro yellow tracksuit, black gumboots and a standard-issue, broad-brimmed navy hat.
At this school, the older kids tend not to care for authorities, especially fluoro yellow ones who purport to govern all movements across a few striped metres of road. Some of them ignore my demands to wait, staring at me with amused defiance as they step onto the crossing without my permission. A boy dashes past at the last second to catch up with them, narrowly missing the bull bar of an oncoming truck.
I’m struggling this afternoon to keep the STOP sign upright in the strong wind. I’m also trying to avoid getting run over: cars will stop for kids but start drifting forward while I’m still on the crossing because, after all, fluoro people are invisible.
The rain drips off the brim of my hat while a mother approaches to tell me in front of the waiting kids that I’m doing a bad job.
Apparently I’m holding up traffic.
The problem, obviously, is not the endless lines of cars and children needing to cross paths at right angles in an orderly fashion – the problem is my skills with a STOP sign.
Before training as a lollipop lady, I knew nothing about the inner workings of the job. The task of taking kids across the road seemed so simple that I assumed the job didn’t actually have any inner workings.
I had no idea, for instance, that there is an official method in New South Wales for the ushering of children across the road, which involves prescribed angles at which the STOP sign must be held during the process.
I also discovered that taking a job as a casual, as I did, means filling in for regulars who have gone on holidays, are in the middle of having a major operation, or have died. After all, lollipop people are, for the most part, members of the whiter-haired, less physically robust sections of society. I was often not told the fate that had befallen the person I was replacing, which made it difficult to answer the only question I was asked all afternoon as I took kids from A to B, which was: ‘Where did Frank go?’ I’d reply with something along the lines of: ‘Hopefully on holidays.’
Another of my discoveries was that not all lollipop people are created equal. Some are far better at the job than others. The best lollipop person I ever saw in action was a man who gave me on-the-job training in my first week. He knew all the kids’ names, knew the names of the parents to whom they belonged, remembered which football teams the kids supported, asked after those he noticed were absent from school, and—at the same time—knew the position of every nearby car in relation to the crossing for which he was responsible.
Being a lollipop lady had some very sweet moments too. I once saw a father taking his young son to primary school in the morning. Holding hands, they made a deal only to step on the white stripes as they crossed the road.
I’m always surprised by how negatively I’m judged for taking odd jobs to fund my writing life. So far, I have not only been a lollipop lady but have also sold clothes, promoted child sponsorship in shopping centres, and been a courier of corporate Easter hampers. I’m now a tender writer for NGOs: the work comes in by email and phone, and I see my boss in person about two or three times a year.
People have been unexpectedly vocal about my “bad” career decisions. In everyday conversations that happen to touch on my fiction writing, I’ve been told that I don’t have a “proper job”, that I’m too stubborn, that I should expect nothing from my writing, and that I’m almost 30 and need to stop holing myself up in my writing studio if I ever want to start a family. It seems I have irresponsibly thrown away a good education and a promising career in order to take career-destroying jobs and to waste time on an arty-farty hobby that has made almost no positive contribution to the economy. An ex once asked me if I would still have a writing studio in seven years’ time because, if that was going to be the case, I’d need to tell him immediately: my writing ambitions were just not going to fit into his plans to settle down.
I’ve often wondered about the source of this overriding drive towards conventionality. Maybe it’s partly a suburban Sydney middle class phenomenon. I’m also of Chinese descent and belong to a migrant culture that tends to prioritise financial security. If you’re in a similar situation, perhaps the most compassionate way to ensure your migrant parents don’t tear their hair out with worry is to acquire a tertiary education and then to position yourself wherever money and prestige gravitate – particularly the lush fields of accounting, banking, law and medicine. Academia, though hardly constituting green pastures in the financial sense, also gets a nod because it demonstrates you have an institutionally-recognised super brain, even if that brain isn’t so great at making money.
Whatever the cause of this drive to conform, it is clear that I have spectacularly dropped out of the race towards standard working weeks, comfortable salaries, Friday night drinks, marriage, mortgages, weekend dinner parties with friends, international holidays once or twice a year, and the production of babies. For some of those still in the race, exceptions to the rule are bewildering, and I am—to my apparent detriment—one of those exceptions.
I often return to consider the question of what constitutes wasted potential.
I have an uncle, a successful architect, who stresses the importance of being a maverick. To achieve anything remarkable in your career, he says, you can’t play safe.
I think he’s right. While I could have been a good corporate lawyer, I could be an even better writer. It would be a shame not to continue to pursue writing, despite the financial risks that this path presents.
One of the difficulties of being a maverick is that it requires traits that can be seen as negative, particularly for women, including obstinacy, ambition and the confidence to stand alone.
Where I have lacked confidence, I’ve made up for it by making decisions that I imagine a more confident person would make. These decisions have involved reorganising the demands of daily life around my writing, where possible. I’ve also made a conscious effort to surround myself with encouraging people, and to loosen ties with those who laugh at my decisions, or are silently unsupportive, or are seriously concerned on my behalf about my substandard life decisions.
In the process of redesigning my approach to work, I have often felt isolated, lonely and stressed. It doesn’t help that I have two jobs but one—fiction writing—pays next to nothing. The benefit, however, has been that, while I may have forgone the financial freedom of a comfortable salary, I’m moving towards greater freedom of thought and schedule.
A waste of potential, in my view, is being too afraid to become the maverick you were meant to be.
J.Y.L. Koh’s most recent short stories have appeared in The Sleepers Almanac Nos. 7 and 8. An adaptation of her short story, Colin the Dog’s Fabulous Midnight Adventure & Another Story, was one of Australia’s Top 100 short films at the 2012 St Kilda Film Festival. She tweets as @juliekoh and blogs at thefictionaljuliekoh.com.
(In the shifting over to the new site, we lost all the great comments. Here are some of them below)
Lovely. (Oops, I seem not to have negotiated the Leave A Reply … perhaps I shan’t apply for a job as a Lollpop Person or any other position of responsibility).
Dan Farrugia says:
April 11, 2013 at 10:38 am (Edit)
Awesome stuff. Seriously. So much of conformity in life just comes down to fear. Fear of getting it wrong. People focus so much on financial currency and they completely ignore life’s other currencies, time, fun, creativity, freedom etc. Sacrificing all those to have only money, kinda seems like a raw deal.
April 11, 2013 at 5:40 pm (Edit)
I have the utmost admiration for you Julie!
April 12, 2013 at 9:07 am (Edit)
Julie you are awesome, I loved your story in the recent Sleeper’s Almanac and this was just what I needed to hear.
Angela (Ms LiteraryMinded) says:
April 12, 2013 at 9:52 am (Edit)
This is so great. And good on you! I’ve often left jobs just as I was being promoted because I knew the responsibility (& longer hours etc.) would interfere with my writing. I can so relate to what you say about people wanting to steer you on the ‘right’ path, being worried about your low income etc. Since my partner and I both write and are happy living cheaply, we also get these kinds of comments as a couple. Yes, how will we support ourselves on retail/hospitality/freelance stuff when we ‘settle down’. Maddening. The other one is ‘have you published a book yet?’ because it’s the only thing that apparently will legitimise my lifestyle to them. I have done the same thing by surrounding myself with supportive and understanding people, and trying not to fall into the trap of over-explaining myself, inadequately, in other company. Like at a wedding or function – anywhere one is supposed to talk about what they ‘do’. Let’s keep fighting this fight!
J.Y.L. Koh says:
April 12, 2013 at 11:05 am (Edit)
Thanks for all the lovely comments.
Angela, it’s so true – I always get that question about whether I’ve published a book yet. Few people realise how long it can take for literary fiction writers to develop the skills to write a good novel.
Kirk Marshall says:
April 12, 2013 at 1:06 pm (Edit)
A little uncannily, this is just the tonic of conversation that I needed — I’ve increasingly come to feel much the same way about my current “professional situation”, as it appears you felt when originally employed in the rarefied sphere of corporate law.
I’ve been teaching part-time for two years now (albeit, prior to that, I was employed for a time as a Visa-Sponsored English-Language Instructor in Japan in 2007, and then as an English conversation school tutor in Queensland, once I’d returned to Australian shores), but I was compelled to become professionally-qualified because I’m good at it, and yet I’ve written very little new fiction since commencing (and graduating) the Post-graduate DipEd.
Everybody openly (and in some cases, warily) acknowledges and professes that teaching professionally is a demanding day-job, but I’m inherently a stickler for going beyond the purview of any given position — it’s just something I’m hardwired to do — and the consequence is that both my writing & my sense of personal satisfaction has suffered accordingly. It’s got to the stage where I actively want to avoid the workload, because I know it’ll devour the little time I’m afforded to engage in creative pursuits, and these days I seem to increasingly recall Steve Toltz’s rueful caveat “not to have a fallback career… because then you’ll fall back on it.”
This is all to say that I think you’re a damn brave individual, and I’m inclined to follow suit — hopefully sooner rather than the alternative. I might not be able to successfully pull off “lollipop lad”, but methinks it’s about time to consider alternative career avenues which don’t rely on me subordinating the pen for the chalk the whole year out.
Samantha Memi says:
April 12, 2013 at 4:42 pm (Edit)
I wish I was as brave as you. I wish you all the success you deserve in your career. (I mean as a lollipop lady)
Hettie Ashwin says:
April 12, 2013 at 10:24 pm (Edit)
I too was a lollypop lady and wielded a big stick and a whistle. FYI There is more kudos if your kids go to the school.
Great to hear you are doing what you want as opposed to what you should. Saying “I’m a writer.” people are usually intrigued but I then say, Any more questions and you will have to buy my book. That shuts them up.
J.Y.L. Koh says:
April 12, 2013 at 11:15 pm (Edit)
Thanks Kirk. Let me know how you get on with your work/writing balance. I think you’ve succeeded with it more than you think, given that you’re one of the more prolific writers I know!
J.Y.L. Koh says:
April 12, 2013 at 11:15 pm (Edit)
Haha, and thanks Samantha.
April 12, 2013 at 11:40 pm (Edit)
Excellent post Julie, and very inspirational.
I think it’s something that many people struggle with. I work in IT and have for 10 years, but have begun to hate it and I lack any ambition to progress it as a career.
I’m financially quite conservative; my upbringing has left me terrified of being unable to pay the bills. So for now I’m taking things slowly by studying literature and writing part-time while still working full-time. But of course this leaves even less time for me to pursue creative endeavours!
The most “daring” thing I’ve done is thrown in a job similar to the one you describe (ie: leaving the office at night and being surprised by damp roads), and taken a government job with RDOs and more reasonable hours.
Anyway – good on you, I say
Alex Salib says:
April 12, 2013 at 11:48 pm (Edit)
Go Julie! Your writing talents were completely wasted in corporate law (and perhaps also in lollipopping)! I am sure you will inspire other young creatives to do what they actually want to be doing rather than doing what everyone else things is the proper career path to take
May 22, 2013 at 9:38 pm (Edit)
Beautiful. Unfortunately the priority of ‘education’ to make money isn’t a mono-cultural thing. My father urged me to become an accountant, rubbing his thumb against his forefinger.