On May 19, 1993, I reported to work for my first real job…or more precisely the first one I held after graduating from university. Prior to that I had worked three years as an electronics salesperson at Sears while attending Texas A&M, and before that I toiled in the pit room of a barbecue restaurant for three other years. Unlike a lot of my friends, I didn’t enjoy bouncing from one job to the next, so as far as teenage employees were concerned I was about as loyal as they come.
In May of 1993 Nirvana were still writing songs for the September release of their third album, In Utero. Bill Clinton was in the fifth month of his Presidency. The Dallas Cowboys had recently annihilated the Buffalo Bills 52-17 in the greatest Super Bowl ever played. Heidi Montag was six years old and was still sporting her original face.
Then, this past April 8, after almost seventeen years of employment with the same company, I was laid off for financial reasons, along with 63 other employees.
When I first began my new job, I had moved to Tulsa from Texas. My girlfriend came with me and it was like starting life over again. But this didn’t seem all that unusual to me, since as a kid I had moved countless times, rarely living in any town for more than two years. It didn’t seem likely I would be in Tulsa very long, since my home was Texas and also because I had recently decided I wanted to write novels for a living.
Of course most anyone on this site knows that making money writing fiction isn’t something you simply decide to do. There is a process of paying dues, and even then you might not make enough money to support yourself. As I wrote my first novel I approached this reality first with naiveté, and later denial, while reporting dutifully to work every day.
But oh, I hated it. For the first six years I worked as a Customer Service Representative. During that time I answered around 100,000 phone calls. There were days when I wondered, as I drove to work, exactly how much it might hurt to drive my car into oncoming traffic or perhaps off a highway overpass. The idea being that I could collect long term disability and accelerate the novel writing process while I healed. Toward the end I was a terrible asshole to people on the phone, in creative ways that would make all of you hate me, but I simply couldn’t help myself. After all, when someone called, I didn’t pick up a handset and place it against my ear. I didn’t push a button to admit the phone calls into my headset. No, I was always on, always available to receive a call, and I sat there like the victim of a firing squad, waiting with my back turned to the callers, who picked up their telephones and fired into my head and I was helpless to stop it. I hated them. I was Sartre on steroids.
Eventually I got smart and realized novels weren’t going to pay the bills any time soon. My company wanted to a launch a massive and sophisticated web site, so I applied for one of the relevant jobs and landed it. Suddenly life was amazing. I wasn’t tied to a telecommunications fence post any longer. I could go to the bathroom when I wanted. If I didn’t make it back from lunch in an hour, I wasn’t forced to weather dirty looks from my co-workers. Also, after a year or so on the job, I was promoted and began to make a lot more money.
I realized my prior logic had been flawed. While in Customer Service I had chosen not to apply for more important jobs because I thought it would mean working longer hours, and I didn’t want to take time away from writing. But a happier work day made me a much more effective writer, and a few years later I finally found an agent and sold my first novel. My contract was pretty good, and my editor wanted a second book, so I figured my days working in the corporate world were numbered. For this reason I flourished even more. I became a changed man, a real man. A confident man. I’d picked a difficult goal—selling a novel to a major publisher—and achieved it. I was very proud of this, and it was reflected in every facet of my life…including my corporate job.
Eventually it turned out that I remained naïve about the publishing industry and what it took to be financially successful in it. Even as I became a better writer and wrote a good third book, it wasn’t picked up by my publisher. My agent suggested I write another one. I didn’t react well to this idea because it would delay my emancipation from the cubicle by another couple of years, and subconsciously I was already out the door.
The odd part of all this is I never looked at my corporate job as my life. It was something I did to make an “interim” living. In the years after Customer Service I earned plenty of raises, and combined with my contract advance I was certainly not struggling financially. I imagined the day I turned in my resignation letter would be one of the happiest of my life, and certainly the most fulfilling.
In fact, on the last day of my employment, when I realized why I had been called into an unscheduled meeting, I passed through the stages of shock quickly. Adrenaline shot through me, turning my hands sweaty, doubling my heart rate. After seventeen years of the same daily routine—almost half my life—things were never going to be the same. But once I heard the details of my dismissal, and after I calculated the severance pay in my head, a sense of calm settled over me. I realized I had a wonderful opportunity to take time off and finish my next novel. My agent and I had been going back and forth with successive drafts of it, and I knew I was close to something we could sell.
On top of that, I had gained enough expertise in web marketing to start a consulting firm if I wanted. Seventeen years of making friends and business contacts in Tulsa meant I would have no trouble meeting potential clients. And I would finally be free of those four gray walls I despised so much.
To be clear, the company for which I worked is a good one. Employee retention levels are extremely high because the people who work there enjoy the corporate culture. I never disliked anyone in the office and in fact built many strong friendships. I enjoyed the chance to be creative in my work and the opportunity to travel overseas for the first time. The God Particle is set partly in Switzerland because of the many times I flew there for my job.
But because of such a strong, lifelong desire to write novels, I never developed the passion for my day job that it takes to become truly successful and happy. When people asked me what I did for a living, I would tell them I was a writer and, oh, I also did web marketing for a company here in town. Which wasn’t exactly the proportional truth and certainly not fair to a company that had given me so much.
I realize many people have been laid off from their jobs. I certainly can’t complain about the situation I find myself in, because I don’t have a family to support, and I have every chance to land squarely on my feet.
But since I never really considered the marketing work my trade, since I didn’t think it was an important part of my identity, it’s odd to now find myself so directionless. I can write 5,000 words a day if I really want to, and I wrote almost 1,000 a day when I was working a full time in the office. So why have I written almost nothing since I was let go? Why haven’t I posted here? Yes, I’ve filed the paperwork for my S-Corp, I’ve designed business cards and met with possible marketing clients, but mainly it seems like the days come and go with disturbing speed and I can’t remember exactly what I did with them.
When I think about this behavior, especially considering how driven to succeed I’ve always been, it becomes easy to see how someone can drift away from a structured life. It’s not difficult to imagine how someone might become lethargic and lose their sense of direction. We’ve all heard stories of successful people losing their way, even becoming homeless, and I’ve always wondered how someone could allow themselves to drift so far off course. But now I have an idea. Laziness is insidious. It sneaks up on you and caresses you and pretty soon you see nothing wrong with getting up at noon every day. After seventeen years toiling away in a cubicle, you’ve earned it, right?
Intellectually, the flaws in this thinking are obvious. And feeling sorry for yourself is absurd when there are so many people in the world suffering through terrible lives I can’t even imagine.
But experience is subjective, and in any life you have to find your own way. I would never, under normal circumstances, make public something that demonstrates such frailty of character. Writing about lost spelling bees in the sixth grade might be cute, but revealing inadequacies of the present day is something I don’t do easily.
I’m doing it anyway, even if I’m the only person who reads this post, because it’s a way to hold myself accountable. The opportunity to remake your life doesn’t come around often, and when it does, you’ve got to make the most of it.
So there you go. No more screwing around.