Tuesday, October 26, 2010

When there's nothing left to fear, you're a writer

Clare's post yesterday about writer indignities left me thinking about indignities in general, on both a macro and micro level.

First, a bit of background: I used to hold what John G. would call a Big Girl job. For years I worked at various multinational firms as a Senior Editor and Senior Writer. The jobs were non-creative, high pressure, and frankly, I would have loved to cast off the yoke of the workaday world. But with a high salary, two daughters in private schools, and a fickle stock market, I never felt brave enough to to sail through the front door one night announcing, "Honey, I quit my job!"  

For years I rode the IT roller coaster. At the height of the tech bubble, I gave myself a $15,000 raise in a single day by switching jobs. Then, globalization began to take hold. The employer that had given me the new job offshored our office to Canada, closing the U.S. facility. Take that, America!

While I was unemployed, I wrote the manuscript that became the first novel published under my own name (I'd previously written Nancy Drews under contract, but those didn't pay that much. And of course, your name's not on the cover.) I got a contract for a series from a Big House publisher.

Then one day I got an email from a former colleague asking if I was "available." After considering quietly saying no without telling my husband, I gritted my teeth, responded "yes," and soon began a new job at another firm, a huge software security firm.

Fast forward a few more years, and my new employer suddenly began making noises about how they poorly they viewed their American employees.  We cost more than our Indian and Chinese counterparts and we were less innovative, they told us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I watched people grow more and more frightened with each round of job cuts. The layoffs would inevitably take place just before the quarterly earnings came out. One day, the entire group that I worked with was laid off. (I was spared the ax that time by the random mercy of a dotted line on an org chart).

Speaking of indignities, my colleagues were forced to train their replacements from India. The Indian workers--who were lovely, incredibly polite and competent people, by the way--arrived in the office for their first day of training looking a little afraid of us, and who can blame them? Everyone handled the situation professionally, though, and the survivors carried on. We learned that the American office was now to be regarded as a small, centralized control center over a global workforce of lovely, incredibly polite and competent people in India and China. And wherever else labor could be had on the cheap.

But finally my day came. I got my severance, and I got to sail through the front door and announce, "Honey, I got laid off from my job!" I was gloriously happy--my husband perhaps a tad less so. So now I'm able to write full time without feeling guilty.

I'm relaying this story to illustrate something my dad always says: "In every crisis, there is a hidden opportunity." (It's the same concept as "Every cloud has a silver lining", I guess, but because it avoids metaphor and my dad is an astrophysicist, his version always seemed more profound to me).

Years ago when I was a student at Wellesley College, I recall reading about some old economic theory. (I'm talking really old, as in hundreds of years). A famous person of that era, the Warren Buffet of his day perhaps, suggested that the only reason one worked hard to become a successful merchant, lawyer, or other professional was so that one's children could afford to grow up and become artists.  Becoming an artist was the greatest aspiration and the most esteemed vocation possible, by implication.

So I think we may have come full circle.  Now that the multinational class rules the globe, and the "good" jobs with benefits are disappearing, the rest of us are being emancipated from our former wage-mongering selves. We are freer to become artists. In my case, that means I can finally claim my identity as a writer. Sans guilt.

Oh, and so far they haven't figured out how to offshore artists. See? Told you there was a rainbow.

8 comments:

  1. I have come to see my situation as being set free to do what always wanted to do.

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  2. When asked why he kept writing multiple books a year in his 70's, Robert B. Parker said, "I have children in the arts."

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  3. I have a daughter in art school right now, Jim. Oops, I better get back to my manuscript!

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  4. It is funny how things work out isn't it. I had refused for years to even consider quitting my job to do what I always wanted to do and then I finally resigned to pursue a PhD of all things. While I was waiting to start I wrote my first novel and fell pregnant with twins...so then I realized the universe was trying to tell me something - finally I got to be a writer!

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  5. That was truly karma in your case, Clare!

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  6. It's hard to see the silver lining when downsizing/outsourcing is on your horizon, but it's there for sure. I remember Lee Child commenting on the fact that he used all the negative energy from his having been fired from a high-profile PR job to fuel his first Jack Reacher novel. Sounds like you (other who commented here) did the same. I know I did, and love every moment of this second chance.

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  7. They could offshore you, Kathryn. Your publisher could send you to Grand Cayman and order you to write more books down there.

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