Mining a rich seam of inspiration

14th September 2007 at 01:00
For many teachers-turned-successful-authors, keeping a foothold in school provides the lifeblood of their writing. Madeleine Brettingham reports

Teachers JK Rowling, Philip Pullman and playwright Steve Thompson, author of West End satire Whipping It Up, have all done it and quite a few others would like to swap the classroom for a career as a writer.

Writing can offer freedom and creativity, but it is hard to move from spare time scribbler to professional. Many combine it with supply teaching or a full-time job to build up contacts. Others teach because they find school life an inspiration.

Cathy Cassidy started working on her first novel after more than a decade in schools. Around five years later, she has just published Lucky Star, her sixth book, and says she is earning around four times what she did as a freelance art teacher. The 45-year-old, who lives in Dumfries and Galloway, always wanted to write. Although an early job as fiction editor on Jackie, the girl's magazine, whetted her appetite, she quit to do her PGCE and only returned to writing at a friend's suggestion. "I had turned 40 and had that feeling of it all being too late," she says. "But luckily a straight-talking friend pushed me in the right direction."

After months of getting up at 5am, she had written Dizzy, the story of a girl whose absent mother returns and takes her on a whirlwind adventure. The book sparked a bidding war.

"It was an incredible situation," she says. "To have publishers fighting over it was a dream come true."

Cathy now does stints as a specialist art teacher and writes at her rural cottage near Castle Douglas. She says her busy life, with her two teenage children, inspires her. "I wouldn't give up teaching for the world. Having kids around keeps me plugged into the way they talk, the way they think and the things that worry them," she says.

David Harrold, 55, is another teacher who feared he had left it too late. But at 47 he quit his full-time job as a secondary English teacher in Hertfordshire to take up supply teaching and start a career in the theatre. After understudying stars such as Corin Redgrave and Antony Sher in touring productions of Song at Twilight and Mahler's Conversion respectively, he began writing.

"As a supply teacher I worked in a lot of schools and I would sometimes see three Ofsted inspections a year. I watched the panic, the cooking of the books and the sending away of difficult kids. All the stuff we're not supposed to talk about but which happens." David wrote Dumbing Down, a satire on the English education system that has toured nationwide, including the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. He attributes its success to "nepotism and a bit of bluffing".

"Once it had been performed in one theatre, we could go to the next and say, 'look, these guys are showing us, why don't you'?"

He now does supply teaching three days a week and has no intention of giving up. "I love walking into a sixth form with the feeling that I'm not only a teacher," he says. "I can give pupils advice. I can say, 'don't worry if you get your essay wrong the first time. Redraft it. That's what writing is all about.'"

Peter Leyland, a 57-year-old former middle-school teacher from Buckinghamshire, is about to start a career as a freelance journalist, using his specialism in gifted and talented education. He has had articles published in the journal Gifted and Talented Update as well as a book, Be a Better Gifted and Talented Coordinator.

"My house is bought and my daughter has left home so I have more freedom financially," he says. "It's exciting. I see it as a bit of an experiment."

Susan Elkin, a former secondary English teacher and chair of the Society of Authors' education writers group, advises teachers to wait until they have built up enough work to survive on before quitting. It took her 10 years but she says capitalising on your knowledge of education can be invaluable. Her first big break was writing "outrageous right-wing opinion pieces" on education for The Daily Telegraph. "I'm pleased to say I now make more than I would have done as a deputy head," she says. "But it took persistence. My advice to anyone starting out is, write about what you know *


* Find a space in your house where you can work, and sort out your timetable. Do you prefer burning the midnight oil or could you rouse yourself at 5am to get a few hundred words done before assembly? ** Get a copy of The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook if you're interested in authorship or visit if journalism is your bag. Plunder them for contacts Remember to expect rejection. Lots of it. But make it less likely by phoning ahead, asking who you should send your work to and how they want it submitted * If you want to write full-time, consider easing yourself into it by going part time at school or doing supply work first.

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