“The world is always ending, for someone.” — Neil Gaiman, Signal to Noise
And then it was over.
Even though I had plenty of warning — a luxury afforded few layoff victims — I was still not ready. In a space of six months my professional world shrank from a busy headquarters filled with stress-fractured people, to a depopulated office building with a scattering of confused and frightened people trying to plan for their future, to me and my boss in an empty IT complex, to me sitting in front of the computer at home. It’s just not realistic to expect to be mentally prepared for the isolation, particularly if you’ve been working in a busy and social environment for years. I wasn’t sure what to do with this freedom.
Prior to my termination date I spent some time with the outplacement counselors Macy’s provided. Their advice to me was to take a vacation, and not even begin looking for work for at least a month, maybe longer. I was being forcibly severed from a fifteen year relationship, they pointed out; a grieving period is not only normal, but essential. Diving right into the job search would not be good for me emotionally or professionally. That made sense to me, and seemed logically sound.
So I tried to relax, catch up with some friends, and put the future out of my mind, but that wasn’t going to happen. Hell, I couldn’t avoid thinking about it! During the months between the announcement of the layoffs and the end of my employment my interactions with other people generally fell along a clear divide: those asking what I would do, and those telling me what to do. While it was all appreciated, it also fed into my obsession. The specter of unemployment constantly leered at me from the shadows, resisting my attempts to banish it from my mind, foiling my attempts at relaxing.
You see, the last time I lost a job it cost me a lot, emotionally and financially. I was devastated by it, and my fear of a recurrence eventually turned me into a full-bore workaholic. In the best of circumstances it is nearly impossible to avoid a loss of self-esteem when the same people who lauded your work for years no longer have any use for you. When you combine that crisis of confidence with the state of the economy and a descent into middle-age, the prospect of long-term joblessness becomes terrifying. It took most of my strength to walk the daily tightrope between calm acceptance of change and gut-churning desperation.
In spite of all the fear in my heart, my brain knew it would work out. My finances would be okay for a while — or so it looked on paper, anyway. All I needed was to find another job. But we are supposed to look at radical personal disruption as an opportunity for improvement, or so my many advisors had said. This would be a good opportunity to change gears, to move into an emotionally rewarding profession, to do what I was meant to do.
I didn’t need to merely find another job, I needed to find a career. The choice was obvious: it was time to become a writer.
Since childhood I’ve read, listened to, and told stories. It is as natural to me as breathing, and as difficult to stop. Language surrounds us all, and while most people barely notice it, I do. Perhaps that’s why words come easily to me, in a way they don’t to others. I get a visceral joy from crafting a tale, a scene, a sentence, a phrase; it’s a pleasure I have never found anywhere else. Consequently, over the years I’ve written a little of everything — fiction, reviews, documentation, ad copy, speeches, poetry, and more. It seems logical to find a way to center my professional life around words.
Unfortunately, when people heard about my plan they reacted with shock and fear, leading to a predictable call and response: “This is the wrong time to change careers,” I was flatly informed. “When is it a good time?” I would reply. “Stay in IT, everyone needs programmers,” others said. “Just because I’m good at something doesn’t mean I want to do it forever,” I reminded them. “It isn’t important to like your job, as long as you are making good money.” That ended the litany. I didn’t have a response.
For many people that kind of life works. Putting in the hours just for a paycheck is easier, I suppose, when you have a life outside of work â€” a home, a spouse, kids, the American Dream. When you don’t have any of those things â€” when your job is the core of your life â€” there’s no point to going through the motions. If I am going to be living for my job, shouldn’t my job be a reason to live?
My friends and I spent a lot of time rehashing the same conversations over and over, affording me ample opportunity to review all the myriad considerations. I researched the publishing industry, and while it’s not as bad as the recording industry, it is going through its own collapse these days. I did the handshake circuit to meet local people who could use my services. I wrote and rewrote, and read books by writers on writing. I spoke to working writers about the business — and a more bitterly cynical crowd I would be hard-pressed to imagine.
Along the way, I learned three things. First, the business side of writing is less pleasant than prostitution, and just as likely to ruin you — be a writer only if your nature demands it. Second, employers consider writing to be a less valuable skill than stuffing envelopes — it’s an “anybody can do that” craft. Third, I tell good stories. I was right — this is what I’m supposed to do.
I crafted strategies and assembled timetables, and managed to overcome much of my fear. Then my plans began to fall apart. I ran into problems with my COBRA insurance, but I was assured that a lot of people were having problems, and to stay patient. While that was being worked out I used my severance money to cover my growing medical expenses, knowing I would be reimbursed soon. It seemed to be taking a very long time to resolve, but again, “Be patient.” I took deep breaths and focused on the future.
But when your health goes to hell money becomes a problem, and when you’ve got money problems your health goes to hell. Routine medical issues suddenly became serious medical issues, and without active insurance, my money was quickly used up. My expected fall-back funds failed to materialize due to an unexpected legal concern, too. Suddenly I was sick, broke, and unemployed.
A big portion of the fault is mine. If I’d been more aggressive in following up on assurances given I could have avoided some of the problems, but I was a tad too willing to accept bureaucratic lethargy as an excuse. Exercising patience is fine, but there is a clear downside to avoiding stress by letting things roll off you.
And here we are. Sensibly I would take the next job I can snatch up. Recent events have certainly pushed me in that direction, and the voices of my friends keep rising in chorus, telling me — with love — to be reasonable and do just that. This won’t be the first time I’ve ignored sound advice.
When we are young our slates are largely blank, our dreams and desires unwritten; still, society holds the chalk. Most people are reasonably happy with whatever script is written for them, but words mean too much to me to be comfortable with that. I’m doing my damnedest to wipe the board down with my shirtsleeve and erase what’s been written. I’ve finally got my own chalk.
For me, and for many of my friends, this has been a year of change — planned and unplanned, subtle and apocalyptic. If this were fiction I’d tidy up the plot threads and provide you with a sense of closure, complete with happy endings and justice for all. Sorry about that; life rarely works out that neatly. Still, part of telling a story is knowing when to stop, and it’s time for this one to end.
What do you do after the end of the world? You raise a glass to its memory, shed a tear or two, and then get to work building a new world on the rubble of the old.
One story at a time.