Jan. 9, 2023

Retirement meant an end to teaching and a beginning as an author

How a Calgary Board of Education English teacher and UCalgary alumnus finally found time to write books in retirement
Retired teacher Keith Worthington
Keith Worthington

After a 34-year career that saw him teach thousands of students in five Calgary schools, Keith Worthington, BEd’71, ended his teaching career in 2005 at the age of 55.

Sure, Worthington may have “retired” from his career with the Calgary Board of Education, but that hasn’t meant he’s just kicked back in his La-Z-Boy ever since.

“I thought of myself as ‘semi-retired,’” he explains from his home office, where he has penned three books of poetry and one novel since 2006. But those projects began after he left the CBE and began working part-time at Bow Valley College as a tutor, and at a private golf club where he worked for a few seasons.

“Not many of us are given the choice to retire at 55,” Worthington says. “I knew I wasn’t finished working or earning money ... it’s just that I wanted to do something different and only part-time.”

Being an English teacher (mostly in junior high schools), Worthington was always a voracious reader. His heroes include American author Richard Ford and dual Canadian-American citizen John Irving. His biggest literary influence was his Grade 12 language arts teacher, Jim Kelly, who treated Worthington and his cohort as “writers, not just students.”

This approach would one day impact Worthington’s own teaching style. “I was always writing with my students ... whether it was poetry or short memoirs, I was always writing,” he recalls. “But, as a full-time teacher, I never had the time or energy to write a complete book.”

A few of Keith's books

A few of Keith's books

That changed in 2006 when he began writing the collection of poems that formed Puffs of Breath, followed by Poet on a Cargo Plane and After the Flood: Hockey Poems. He recently published his first novel, Alex in ’63.

Like the advice you often hear about football and life, Worthington keeps his prose and messages simple. Of course, in Alex in ’63 you get more complexities in the intertwining of families and friendships among teenage football players, all comfortably set against a familiar Calgary backdrop, than you find in his poetry collections. In Alex, the themes of loyalty, family and independence force the characters to question their allegiances and moral consciences in this big-hearted, 357-page novel.

As for advice on retirement, writing and self-publishing, we caught up with Worthington, who had this to say:  

On the subject matter of Alex in ’63: “Junior high is full of angst and confusion. Being a teacher of this age group, I had so many memories I could build on. I don’t think most of our lives are dramatic enough to be literature. I wanted to fictionalize something I knew ... and I knew junior high kids. Very well.”

Where should a person start? “Create a body of work, whether that’s several poems or a chapter of a novel and don’t feel that you need to have everything planned out. Get feedback on it, don’t get discouraged and keep doing it.”

Advice for a rookie writer? “I have a little writers’ group made up of former students and colleagues. They help me immensely in terms of what works, what doesn’t and what to reconsider. Be sure you find people who will give you honest feedback — not your closest friends. If you need to connect to an organization, there’s the Alexandra Writers’ Guild, Continuing Education courses, and UCalgary’s writer-in-residence program also helped me a lot.” 

On a writer’s discipline and structure: “I am not the sort of author who writes 10 to 12 hours a day. Likely why it took four years to write Alex. One year to write it and three to edit.”

On publishing methods: “I choose to self-publish because getting picked up by a publishing house is a longshot; it’s sort of like making an Olympic team. There are plenty of challenges with self-publishing, though, such as getting strangers to buy your book. Use every connection you have, and if you can get a retail presence that will help enormously. I was able to sell my first book at Shelf Life Books [in Calgary’s Beltline] and was able to sell 400 copies that way. It’s far more competitive now.”

On marketing tips: “Peddle your work wherever you can: libraries, bookstores, Little Libraries [Worthington has dropped off business postcards in his books and left them in neighbourhood Little Library boxes], backcountry lodges (i.e., Skoki Lodge), where people have time to read.”

Hardest part of writing? “You need to love it as the writing process is most definitely a marathon. For me, the hardest part is keeping the momentum going in the narrative ... a novel needs to have tension throughout.”

About working with his partner: “My wife [Renate] is an artist who illustrates my books. We both have our own workspaces and have interests outside these collaborative projects, so it’s easy.”

Retirement advice: “Going cold turkey can be hard on some people. Consider a part-time job or developing a hobby before you do anything final. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. You’ll get so much back.”

Keith and Renate Worthington's work can be viewed here.

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