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The Famous Author Who Said Teaching Was “Exhausting And Depressing”

June 16, 2014
If you're exhausted and depressed, this is one way to handle it.

If you’re exhausted and depressed, this is one way to handle it.

I don’t know much about the personal lives of authors whose books I’ve read. I think Stephen King was hit by a car once. I think Charles Bukowski drank a little bit. I believe James Patterson (whose books I don’t read) has a bunch of co-authors, so he might have a lot of spare time, but I don’t know what he does with it. The point is, I just read the books (and samples of the books). I don’t know anything about the authors.

Yesterday I found out the JRR Tolkien (author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) taught at several colleges while he wrote. I think I might have known that at some point in my life, but I found out again yesterday. An old colleague of his found an old letter that Tolkien had written to him, and in this letter Tolkien said that teaching was “exhausting and depressing.”

It’s a nice feeling to find old letters that I’d forgotten about. Every once in a while, an old card or letter will fall out of one my old books. I usually lose bookmarks, so I use cards and letters instead, and when I don’t finish a book (it happens a lot), the card or note stays in there for years, and I end up losing the card or letter instead of losing a bookmark. But I’ve never found a letter from JRR Tolkien. If I had, it would have made not finishing all of those books worth it.

Anyway, in this newly-found letter, Tolkien said that he thought teaching was “exhausting and depressing,” which I think is kind of funny because he taught college kids. If he thinks teaching college is “exhausting and depressing,” he should have tried public schools. I’m not a teacher, but I have two kids in public schools, and I can tell you that I want nothing to do with teaching.

I can understand why teaching is exhausting and depressing (and I’ve never even been a teacher). Most teachers have to convince a bunch of kids to do stuff they don’t want to do, and you can’t fire the kids if they don’t do their job. If you get the wrong batch of kids and you have to see them day after day, that could get exhausting and depressing. And that’s before the teacher gets to grading the essays. That’s probably a whole new level of exhausting and depressing.

Supposedly, JRR Tolkien wrote the opening sentence of The Hobbit while he was grading papers. If I were a former student, and I found out that my teacher/professor/instructor wrote a bestselling book while he was supposed to be grading my essay, I’d be pissed. I worked hard on my essay, and my teacher wrote a novel while he was supposed to be concentrating on grading essays? Well, at least Tolkien wrote a decent book.

I wonder how Tolkien graded his essays while he was writing his books. Was he an easy grader when he was writing, or did he get grumpier and then take it out on his students? I wonder how his students inspired him to write. I wonder if he ever knew that his book The Hobbit became required reading in some schools. How would Tolkien have felt reading student essays analyzing character development in The Lord of the Rings?

JRR Tolkien was teaching before I was even born, so if he thought teaching was “exhaustive and depressing” back then, think about how “exhausting and depressing” it is now. Except I don’t know if teaching conditions are worse now. People say today’s kids are lazier and more disrespectful than ever, but I don’t know. I remember a lot of lazy kids when I was a kid, and that was before they started smoking illegal substances. After they started smoking illegal substances, they really got lazy.

I used to be jealous of teachers during the summer because they’d have all day to write while I was still stuck in an office (but at least there aren’t any kids in it). However, if teachers are exhausted and depressed for nine or ten months every year, it might not be worth it (from a writing perspective). I can’t write if I’m exhausted and/or depressed. I just stare at the computer screen. I guess when JRR Tolkien was exhausted and depressed, he wrote about hobbits and orcs, and created histories for worlds that don’t exist.

It must be weird to find out that your (former) teacher/instructor/professor is now famous. One day you’re making fun of the teacher’s clothes, and then you find out the teacher is a bestselling author, and suddenly the clothes don’t matter. Stephen King was a teacher (though I think he was Mr. Bachmann, I’m not sure). Bill O’Reilly was a teacher (man, I bet THAT was a fun classroom). Even Sting (not really an author) was a teacher, but Sting is into tantric sex, and nobody wants to think about a former teacher having tantric sex, even if he’s Sting.


Do you have a teacher who turned out to be famous? Can you write when you’re exhausted and depressed? Should authors who are teachers write books while they’re supposed to be grading papers? If you’re a teacher, is it exhausting and depressing? If you’re not a teacher, does the idea of it exhaust and depress you?


When I was a kid, I was punished for saying the word crap.  Looking back, it kind of ticks me off because now I know…

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And here is the true story of my one moment of high school glory!

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  1. I have been a teacher. I wouldn’t want to do it again. It was exhausting and frustrating, but not depressing. I can write when I’m depressed. In fact it usually makes me feel accomplished, which makes me less depressed. But I cannot write when I’m exhausted because the writing will either suck or not come at all, which is depressing.

    • I haven’t been a teacher, but I get exhausted when I see (or hear about) their everyday activities/experiences. I’m glad you didn’t get depressed when you were teaching. Depressed teachers might not be the most effective.

      • arpinedo permalink

        I remain depressed when teachers and pro-teachers use rigid concepts whenever it’s a jelly idea and use shorteners like idea/event/slash/slash/slash/ and/or /maybe/it-is. I remain depress when the life turns arround the lack of originality and the life “uses” words that go around commonplaces… i remain depressed when the boys, who make-self adults someday, talk on them everyday like a whip, like a smg… i remain depressed.

        Tolkien; ¡The Man! said that bcse he was tired of an elite education and it’s not an atack to teachers. Language is a toolbox; teaching is the way to reach the toolbox. Life, the machine.

  2. This might just be me, but I find that when I am stressed it is really good to write or find some kind of creative outlet. Myself, I’ve written books while unhappy and stressed, and I’ve written while happy. Oh, and also, I taught this past year at Ryerson University… so maybe there’s something to the whole teacher – best-seller idea (fingers crossed!!).

    • I don’t think it’s just you. I can write when I’m stressed, but I have to be alert-stressed, not exhausted-stressed.

      Good luck with the teacher/bestselling-author combo. I’m going to print out your comment, use it as a bookmark, and maybe in a couple years I’ll find the note again and realize you’re a bestselling author!

  3. No famous teacher.
    No, I can’t write when I’m exhausted and depressed.
    Since most teachers grade papers after school hours I say they can do it however they want! 🙂
    I’m not a teacher (thank God!)
    And finally, yes. Teaching is an underpaid, under-appreciated job that would exhaust and depress me beyond belief. Sure there would be uplifting moments, but after one day in any of my kids’ classrooms whether it’s for a holiday party, parent day or field trip, I am ready to vote for teacher pay raises in a heart beat!

    • I’ve been to my kids’ classrooms a couple times and felt the same way. When I saw a little bit of inappropriate behavior from a kid who was not mine, I wasn’t sure if I should correct the behavior or not. I did. And the kid did what I told him to do. That’s the extent of my classroom experience.

      • I’m a “room mom” so I’m there every couple of weeks, crafts and snacks in tow. I love my kids, and I will sit through the torturous hours because they love when I come, but oh man I couldn’t be a teacher!

  4. Never had a famous teacher.
    Exhaustion and depression stop me from doing nearly everything. I can usually read, but not for long. If I try to continue reading after the book falls on my face and wakes me up, I’m in real trouble. That’s when the book falls hard and I end up with a nosebleed. I don’t go to sleep as easily when I’m reading on my Kindle. I guess because of what the electronic light does to my eyes or brain or both. But no way can I write. If exhausted and depressed, I enter a state of super stupor. It’s kind of halfway between “totally spaced out” and “blind confusion”.

    I was a high school English teacher in a small rural school with 5 to 7 different subjects for which to prep. I was always exhausted. I didn’t get depressed until I realized the career I’d dreamed of since childhood was not a dream but a nightmare! If a public school teacher can write a book while teaching, I say “more power to’em”. My brain makes no picture of that at all. I couldn’t even keep up with all the grading; had to have an aid.

    • I’ve fallen asleep while reading, but I’ve never dropped the book on my face.

      On the other hand, I’ve fallen asleep while taking notes in class, and I could see my handwriting trail off (this was over 25 years ago when students still wrote notes on paper).

  5. I have a teacher who was shortlisted for a major (local) literary prize and had to jet off to some literary festivals on her scheduled teaching days. That was sorta neat.

    And, yes, everything about teaching exhausts me. Even in higher ed students go out of their way not to absorb new information.

    • Did your teacher become an easier grader after she became an award-winning writer?

      Are students disrespectful now in higher end, or is their refusal to absorb information more of a passive thing?

      • Hmm. I’m not sure. She used to mark work more favourably if it exhibited the use of her personal favourite fiction devices. (For instance she was always trying to get us to use the environment as metaphor.) I think the prize reinforced (in her mind) that she was some super authority on fiction. It made her 25% more annoying I’d say.

        I shouldn’t speak generally about higher ed. It just seems most of peers are there for something to do and seldom engage with the material. Would hate to be on the other end of such attitudes.

  6. I was a high school English teacher. It was exhausting and depressing. You mention that you can’t fire the kids if they don’t perform. You forgot to mention that the school sometimes fires you when the kids don’t perform. That’s just wrong. I couldn’t write while grading essays, mostly because grading essays made me doubt the spelling of the simplest words.

    I’m going to be famous one day. Then my kids will be able to say they were once taught by someone famous. It would probably be more cool if one of the kids I taught turns into a famous writer one day. Then I’m going to call them and ask them why they couldn’t write that way while I was teaching them.

    • I think it would be more cool (cooler?) if you the teacher became the famous one. I’m tired of kids becoming famous too early. We adults should be the famous ones. We can handle it better, and we’ve paid our dues.

  7. As a teacher, I have had some pretty exhausting and depressing classes, although they’re not the majority. My absolute worst class this year is at an all boys’ middle school. It’s the sort of class that, if all my classes were like that, I would quit teaching permanently, possibly immediately. But I just taught it for the last time today, so I’m happy.

  8. I am an English professor and despite what the society at large seems to think, my job is in fact exhausting, often frustrating and sometimes depressing for the reasons you mentioned above. Most of the exhausting/depressing parts come from teaching general education courses (meaning students don’t want to be there). Teaching English majors (who generally DO want to be there) is generally wonderful, though.

  9. I am a teacher and I totally agree with Tolkien. I wish I were that creative to help me scape from some boring papers and tests I have to grade!

  10. After several decades of varied employment, self employment and periods of unemployment, I drive school bus as a “retirement job.” Though there are rewarding moments, much it is in fact exhausting and depressing. Navigating a city-size bus through congested streets and on curvy country roads can be exhausting, though not depressing. Then do it with 75 kids aboard, who’ve been pent up for most of the past six hours, with (teachers take note) those kids behind you, not in front of you. The depressing part? By nature I dislike regimenting children, but in such conditions it’s necessary for their safety and your own sanity
    Rewarding? Smiles, words and notes of appreciation–and a few friendly chats–with parents (or grandparents). And then there’re the many days off. Starting tomorrow, by the way, for the whole summer! And bringing with it the prospect of uninterrupted writing time.

  11. Yes i can write when i am exhausted and depressed as writing makes me feel good , it heals me of my can still watch your Favourite TV Show or Movie when you are exhausted and depressed, it brings a smile to your face..nicely i thoroughly enjoyed reading it

  12. Kylie Betzner permalink

    As a former educator, I appreciate this. Teaching is exhausting and depressing, especially for a writer. haha. Also, I have trouble writing when I’m depressed and exhausted.

    I wore black a lot when I taught and the kids gave me guff about it, so I hope to become a best selling author so they feel stupid about it;)

    Fun post. Thank you for the laugh!

    • Was it the same black outfit every day, or was it a different black outfit every day? That makes a difference. Teachers who wore the same outfit every day (or every other day) got grief for it. But a teacher who wore varying outfits of black might have been cool. The clothes sometimes make the teacher (from a students’ point of view).

      • Kylie Betzner permalink

        It was a different outfit everyday. I just wore a lot of black. It made laundry easier.

  13. Reblogged this on Write of Passage and commented:
    Funny and true. Probably the best post I’ve read this week.

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