Court has taught English in Thailand for five years. He's a prolific writer of articles and short stories and an ardent supporter of something called Creative Commons. He's also hopefully about to return to the USA with his good lady wife. Let's delve a little deeper.
Hello Court. Welcome to the ajarn hot seat. Your on-line blog describes you as a 'writer in Thailand'. Writing is your passion and teaching pays the bills. Would that be a fair assumption?
Thanks, Phil. Yes, that’s very fair. I look at English teaching as a trade. As if were a carpenter, say. It provides the ready money to support a writing lifestyle and now, a family. Not sure that it’s the most efficient of trades though, at least not in Thailand where the work visa effectively ties your residence status to one employer. In any case, I plan on exploring some other trade options when I get back to the States.
Let's talk about the teaching first. You taught for a while in Japan. Is that where you started your TEFL career? How long were you there?
“Career” is such an ugly word. Japan is where I started teaching though, through the JET Program, which really is the Cadillac of English teaching in Asia - at least when I was on it. Absolutely fantastic experience - I had an 8-hour a week gig smack in the middle of some of Japan's finest countryside. And a salary which seemed like riches to me after being a starving college student. And an apartment. Even a car after a while.
I ended up staying in Japan for four years - two years out in the countryside and two years in Tokyo. As far as teaching goes, in Tokyo I eventually moved into doing strictly private gigs. Japan has a rational visa system so once you're in, you're in. You're not tied to an employer or individual so you can freelance and that gives you a lot of freedom.
Did an MA in Japanese Language while I was there which hasn't yet proved to be of much practical use but was fascinating to do. Likely I would have been better off learning a computer language or two, though.
Were Court Merrigan and Japan a good match?
My relationship with Japan was very love / hate. The list of wonderful things about Japan is a mile long: the food, the scenery, the available cultural experiences, the women, the beer vending machines ... but after a while you run to the end of the novelty, and in Japan you have to be very dedicated to go much deeper. In retrospect I probably stayed about 2 ½ years too long. 18 months seems to be ideal.
My big mistake was learning Japanese. Sounds counterintuitive, right? Well, the fact is most Japanese people are extremely uncomfortable around a foreigner who knows Japanese well. Drives them to a state of spluttering confusion, which can drive you to the brink of insanity if you happen to have devoted hours of your life to learning it. I just didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere there and worse, there was nowhere in particular I wanted to go. So I went back to the US for about a year. Felt the same way there.
You came to Thailand five years ago and got your very first teaching gig from ajarn.com. What was it and how long did that last?
It was at a vocational college in Chonburi that hired me the day my first tourist visa expired. Lucky that. The academic director told me on the phone that it was “next to a sugar cane plantation” but neglected to mention that the “plantation” consisted of one field and that the area is really an industrial wasteland. The gig, however, was great – good friends to work with, charming students. I worked there for 2 years. Liked it so much I came back a year later.
You'd been to Thailand before though on holiday. When you decided to move here permanently, was it a case of Japan losing its appeal or Thailand becoming the more attractive option?
I decided to move to Thailand after first going back to the States. I was working as a surveyor in Colorado in the wintertime. Let me tell you, Thailand looks like paradise from that vantage point. Had some friends over here who sent me enticing emails. I'm easily influenced. I succumbed and got a plane ticket.
Let's talk about your writing. What have you had published?
About a dozen short stories in paper magazines and webzines based in the US, Japan, and Ireland and Thailand. My current rejection to acceptance ratio stands at about 16:1, so behind those published stories there’s something like 200 rejections - an inbox full of them.
Most of my published stuff is linked on my blog - can I get a plug in here? - <a href="http://court-merrigan.blogspot.com/">Endless Emendation</a>. Go down to the "My Stories Here" box on the right side. I also occasionally put some stuff up on the blog itself through a Creative Commons license. Please have a look at any and all of it and pass it on to your friends. Or if you can’t stand it, your enemies.
I had a look through the blog and confess I find it difficult to summarize. Perhaps I should leave that to you.
I originally planned to make Endless Emendation a platform for my published work – a clearing house if you will. And also to post up some other work that hadn’t found a home yet or had been roundly rejected by editors in other words. But in the 2 months since I began, I’ve found it a very useful place to publicly organize various scattered trains of thought. Refining your thoughts into writing forces you to make them clear, forces you to constantly be on the lookout for what’s weak and to improve it. That's the whole idea of the blog for me.
Right now I’m trying to find the right balance between personal and impersonal. I don’t want it to be some sort of confessional diary, but neither should it be mere facade. It’s a work in progress.
You'd like to spread the word about Creative Commons. Go on then.
Creative Commons uses private rights to create public goods: creative works are set free. In my case, this means that stories I write and post on my blog, or that are linked on my blog, you can take, copy, edit, sell, write a screenplay or even make a movie (please do!) based on any of them. The only stipulation is that you give me credit for the original work – in the same way that if you “shared” an MP3 of “Fake Plastic Trees” with a friend you’d mention it was by Radiohead.
In the future, if I ever score a traditional book deal, I hope to have the release of the paper book coincide with a free online release. Or do like Radiohead did with In Rainbows and allow people to pay whatever they wanted for it, including nothing. Why? Well, two interesting things happened with In Rainbows. One, a lot of people opted to actually pay for the music. Two, when Radiohead released a physical CD in record stores, a lot of people bought it. People like to have the tactile object, not just files on their computers. I think the same is true with books.
If you like what you read of my writing online, you might just buy a book of mine in a bookstore someday. Anyway it’s a lot more likely than if you’d never heard of me at all! The writer Cory Doctorow said that the enemy of a writer is not piracy, but obscurity. I think this is absolutely true. So as long as my name is stuck on whatever is passed around, I encourage anyone to do anything they’d like with it.
I’m starting up a Creative Commons Readers & Writers group on Facebook. If you’re interested feel free to friend me there or join up. That’s another work in progress – so far I’m the only member. I'd encourage your readers to go to <a href="http://creativecommons.org/about">Creative Commons</a> and learn more about Creative Commons for themselves. Also you can download the book <a href="http://www.free-culture.cc/favicon.ico">Free Culture</a>. It explains in far more detail and in far better fashion what I'm trying to say here. Finally, Cory Doctorow just published an piece called <a href="http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2008/11/cory-doctorow-why-i-copyfight.html">"Why I Copyfight"</a>He sums up the case for setting creative work free.
Now this is interesting. While you were in Thailand, you were offered a 'dream' expat package. And you turned it down?
I did. I was working for a major international hotel chain as a trainer type. They offered me a promotion to a managerial position with a Western salary, free air tickets home, housing allowance, further promotions in the offing, etc. A smart career move, maybe. But it also meant 80-hour days, 6 & 7 day working weeks. My wife was pregnant and I was in the middle of a novel manuscript. It was a choice of values really. I decided I valued my time – with my family, writing – more when it was mine and not a hotel’s. So I quit and went back to English teaching.
Do you look back and still think you made the right decision?
Never a doubt. I spend long evenings and weekends and holidays with my lovely wife and daughter, and the early mornings and late evenings writing. Writing isn't paying any bills just yet, and the possibility that it never will looms large. But that's alright. I don't write for money - although if some comes my way, I'll take it. Hemingway said a serious writer competes with dead men. If I feel like I’ve held my own there, that’s payment worth far more than any salary package.
Five years in Thailand and you've now decided enough is enough. I read your latest blog entry and in part it's about making ends meet on a teachers salary......or have I got that wrong? You painted quite a bleak picture there.
I guess you’re referring to Democracy for $11.75, or, Serendipity. The poverty part wasn’t meant to apply to anyone other than myself. You can get by fine on a standard teacher’s salary in Thailand if you live simply enough. The question is whether you can pare your life down enough to do it. Much easier said than done, as you no doubt know. Let me also add that being a poor, unknown writer is a hell of a lot more romantic on a movie screen than in real life.
In any case, we’re not leaving Thailand for economic reasons. We’re leaving because we want our daughter to receive a real education, in the classical sense. One that develops and trains her whole person, so that someday she will be capable of deciding for herself what she wants out of life. She’s not going to get that here.
In ajarn's 'great escape' feature, most teachers seem to leave Thailand for better salaries. It's becoming tougher to survive here on 30,000 baht. Agreed?
Sure, things are more expensive here than they were 5 or 10 years ago, and in general salaries haven’t risen accordingly. But isn’t that true just about everywhere? In Thailand it just depends on how you live. Live like the locals in my village do, and you can get by (with a family) on 10k. The vast majority of Westerners aren't willing or able to do that. Me included.
How's your wife's US visa application progressing? In your e-mail to me, it sounded as though she was having one or two problems.
No, no problems so far (knock on a hard drive). It's just a long, drawn-out process, with all the uncertainty and stress inherent in dealing with an impersonal bureaucracy.
What's waiting for you back in the USA? Family network? Job offers? What are you going to do?
It appears an economic depression is awaiting me in the USA. No job offers as of yet. What I am going to do: write. Find a workable trade that allows maximum family / writing time while still providing a decent living. Hopefully not teach.
You're a great writer. Could one single sentence summarize your five years in Thailand?
Not that I’ve come up with yet. If I ever do though, I’ll send it to you.