I Used to be a French Professor

Sometimes things don’t fit. It’s taken me twenty-some years to realize that’s a good thing.

When I was in graduate school in French at the University of Virginia, I had a part-time job at Alderman Library’s Electronic Text Center (RIP). One summer I had the opportunity to edit, transcribe, and annotate a collection of letters written during the American Civil War from twin brothers serving in the Confederate army to their cousin. You can still view the work I did with my colleague, Lisa Spiro, here.

I became obsessed with the American Civil War. I was working on a PhD in French at the time but for one summer I lived and breathed and read and wrote about regiments, skirmishes and dysentery, and I spent hours deciphering spidery handwriting and pouring over faded black and white photographs.

That should have been my first clue that I was not going to be able to devote my life to French only.

But that’s exactly what I had done up until I quit a tenure-track job in 2006. I majored in French in college (with a minor in English). Completed a Masters in French and then a PhD, concentrating in 19th-century French literature. I loved the beefy novels of Balzac and Stendhal and Zola. I loved the creepy tales of Gautier and Nodier. My own tales and novels were unwritten–titles on the shelf of Morpheus’s library, periodically dusted by the tall Lucien. By the time I was reading Neil Gaiman’s epic Sandman series I had convinced myself that I would be content studying other people’s stories. I dreamed about my own, occasionally, and I imagined Lucien cataloging them dutifully. There would be time later to consider those shelves. First there was a dissertation to write and a job to get and then tenure and then–

I was interviewing for a job with a decent university in the northeast. It was clear within the first five minutes that this was not a good match. One of the interviewers didn’t like me. I don’t know why. He was more interested in talking about the neat projects he had piloted in his department. His colleague looked down at his lap a lot. Finally, after about ten minutes, the self-absorbed interviewer finally asked me a question.

“We talked to a candidate earlier today who had the most interesting life story. Before coming to French she spent many years studying math and physics and has made some notable discoveries. Have you done anything like that? Is there anything unusual in your background?”

I looked at him. It didn’t occur to me to talk about my Civil War obsession or my one-time love of creative writing. I thought, “I spent my whole adult life preparing for this one profession. I have the degrees, the teaching experience, the publications. And still it’s not enough. I’ve done nothing unusual.”

“No,” I replied.

Needless to say I never heard back from that hiring committee. But the disastrous interview was useful. It planted a thought in my head. People who change careers, do different things, have multiple and diverging obsessions–they are fascinating. That jerk interviewer was on to something. Why do we all need to fit? Why be cohesive? People aren’t cohesive. We change. We grow. We evolve. We devolve. We turn around and walk the other way sometimes.

I did that. Finally, after 10 years of graduate school, 5 years of professorhood, and two years into a tenure-track job, I walked away from it. I followed my husband to his own dream tech job in San Francisco. I became a Stay-at-Home-Mother to my baby daughter.

And then I started writing again.

I started writing fiction for kids. Picture books, short stories, chapter books, Middle Grade.

I also started writing non-fiction for kids. Historical, scientific, biographical–whatever piques my curiosity. Luckily all those years I spent in graduate school taught me a thing or too about research. There I go again trying to make a cohesive picture out of my life.

A good novel for kids is cohesive. All the pieces fit together in some way. The soiled pink doily that slips down into Great Aunt Edith’s couch and gets stuck to her backside so that the dog nips at it and pushes her into the neighbor’s prickly prize-winning rosebushes–that doily means something. It is a catalyst. Boy would I love to find a good catalyst, a compelling conclusion, a cliff-hanger–something to make my life story as cohesive and meaningful as a good novel.

But lives don’t work that way. The pieces of us don’t fit. I used to be a French professor. I now write kidlit. I homeschool my daughter. I launched a free online course about sleep and dreams. I am writing a Middle Grade novel about a girl with a startling physical problem. And I am currently researching and writing an article about the 15th-century heretic Jan Huss.

And I know that someday I’ll get back into my Civil War obsession. I’m living in Virginia again. It’s bound to happen.

Are you looking for a connective thread? I am. Still. Even though I try to hug all the pointy, pokey, jutting out, jagged pieces. If there’s a thread stringing them together, and that’s a big IF, it’s that I love stories. They can be big beefy French novels. They can be Civil War letters. They can be graphic novels. They can be the books I read to my daughter and the books she reads to me. History, fantasy, science fiction, biography, and especially juvenile fiction. I was a prolific story-writer when I was a kid. I like to think now that I’m writing for that kid. Or she’s writing for me.

She didn’t fit much either.

But not-fitting is useful. It helps you see things that you wouldn’t otherwise see. It creates surprising opportunities. And yes, Mr.-Hiring-Committee-Jerk-from-a-Decent-University-in-the-Northeast, it makes things interesting. (Although it does not make for a short and sweet biographical statement.)

Here’s one, all disjointed and pointy and sticking all its elbows out: I used to be a French professor. Now I write juvenile fiction and non-fiction. And I couldn’t be happier about that.