If you’ve ever struggled to balance the demands of your paid work with your creative goals, this post is for you.
I’ve dragged my feet when it comes to writing about my story. Partly because I know I’ll have to revisit some difficult things I’ve faced over the past few years, and partly because I’m terrified of sounding fake.
So, before I write another word, here’s the truth: I don’t have it all figured out. I still struggle with perfectionism and self-doubt and anxiety and the rest of it. I still struggle to show up at the page, and sometimes I still hate myself for that.
I’ve grown, though, during these past few years. I’ve become aware of patterns in my thoughts and behaviors that drag me down, that keep me trapped in a dark little box of not writing and resenting myself for it.
And, slowly but surely, I’ve rearranged my life so that I write. So that I set down words and share them with my writer’s group and send them out to editors—and sometimes to you, you people of the internet.
Does that sound silly, or trivial? Well, for me, it’s a small miracle. But it entailed some difficult decisions, including leaving my dream job. That’s the slice of my story that I’ll be sharing today.
The dream job
If you read Part One of my story, then you know all about how I came to doubt my competence as a writer, how I came to think of myself as undisciplined and untalented and an all-around mess. When I graduated from college at 21, I still wanted to write someday, but part of me doubted that my writing would never amount to anything.
So I distracted myself. First with a long-distance relationship, and then with a job. Not just any job, though: my dream job, in the editorial department of a New York publishing house.
Publishing is a strange field. It’s a sinking ship that thousands of young people want to pack on to, even though the pay is meager and the prospects for advancement dire. And to succeed—especially in editorial, the most competitive department—you give it your all. You pour your social energy into networking with agents, your persuasive energy into making colleagues give a damn about your projects, and your creative energy into other people’s words.
I loved it, for a while. My bosses entrusted me with an insane amount of responsibility, so from day one I wielded a red pen, made decisions on submissions, and drafted editorial letters and sales talks and those descriptions that go on a book’s backside.
Sitting in my windowless eight-by-eight office, hemmed in by bookcases, an over-burdened set of shelves buckling above my head, my inbox stacked four feet high with proofs and cover designs and manuscripts, I loved my life.
There were difficult moments, to be sure. Authors who resisted my editorial feedback, authors who wanted to design their own covers in Microsoft Paint, authors who demanded why their books hadn’t sold more copies. An author who plagiarized from books that my editor had recommended to her. Not to mention all of the brilliant projects that went to other publishing houses because I couldn’t convince my superiors of their potential.
And the stress. Everything I did was time sensitive. If I took too long to read a submission, we could lose it to another house. If I took too long to edit a manuscript, it would fall behind schedule. If I took too long to review a jacket proof, the art department would breathe down my neck. If I took too long to reply to an email, the sender would complain to my boss, or my boss’s boss.
I stayed late at the office, I checked email before bed, I spent evenings over drinks with agents, I read submissions and edited manuscripts during weekends and vacations. Not because I was a go-getter or a martyr or an exceptional employee, but because that was part of the job.
Like I said: I loved it, for a while. I worked with brilliant authors. My bosses valued my work and my opinions, and I loved them for their openness and their integrity and their crazy faith in me. Every day was an intellectual challenge. I had a real impact on dozens and dozens of books.
But after three years of long hours and unrelenting stress, I got tired. I’d been promoted once, but the publishing industry faced lean times, and there was no guarantee I’d get promoted again. I could barely afford my apartment, let alone new clothes or meat or dinners out with friends. I ate peanut M&Ms from a vending machine for lunch, because they cost less than a sandwich and didn’t take any time to cook or buy. A scaly rash overtook my nose and forehead. Climbing the stairs to my fifth-floor apartment winded me.
When I wasn’t working, I zoned out in front my ancient 15” TV with its built-in VCR, watching Seinfeld or 30 Rock or Clean House, a reality show where messy, disorganized people were forced to sell off their possessions. I knew I should be writing; I even spent a small fortune on poetry workshops so I’d be forced to write at least once a week. But most of the time, my heart wasn’t in it. I was just too tired.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about “shadow artists”: people who surround themselves with art and artists rather than pursue their own creative dreams. When I worked in publishing, I was a shadow artist. I surrounded myself with words and pages and foil-stamped book jackets, and I tried to believe that was enough, even though I wasn’t doing much writing of my own.
In March of 2011, my appendix ruptured. As the doctors wheeled me to the operating room, I wrote down my bosses’ email addresses for my mom. “Get in touch with them tonight,” I insisted, even though she wouldn’t get home until 2 am. “Tell them I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
I was out of the office for two weeks: eight days in the hospital, six at my parents’ house. Because of the infection, my intestines shut down and swelled to three times their usual size. I couldn’t eat or drink for eleven days. Pain ripped through my abdomen when I tried to get out of bed. The first day after surgery, I could barely walk the few steps from my hospital bed to the sink. I recovered more slowly than the doctors expected, so I had to spend 24 hours with a tube sucking acid and bile from my stomach into a canister on the wall. A few days after I left the hospital, my intestines seized up again and I found myself back in the ER.
During this painful recovery, I found myself strangely happy. I got to spend time with my mom, albeit in a hospital room. I was reminded of how deeply my family and friends cared about me. And as I regained the ability to get out of bed and breathe deeply and walk up a slight incline, I developed a new appreciation for my body, my strength, my health.
There was more to it, though. I spent two weeks not defined by my job, not defined by how much I’d done or not done or the extent to which I’d impressed authors or colleagues or literary agents. And for that, I felt free.
I returned to work with a new perspective. I didn’t want my bosses’ jobs, I realized. As much as I loved editing, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my waking hours on other people’s books. I wanted to write my own.
And yet. Dozens of people I’d met would have killed me for my job. If I left, it would be all but impossible to squeeze back on the publishing ship in the future. And leaving would mean walking away from authors and projects and colleagues who meant the world to me.
Well, not quite the whole world.
I started taking lunch breaks. Proper lunch breaks, at the thickly waxed twenty-foot table in the conference room. And I didn’t dash to my desk every five minutes to check e-mail or make sure that neither of my bosses was looking for me. I’d linger over my cleared plate, chatting with Melody, a razor-witted colleague who cracked jokes so inappropriate they knocked me out of my chair.
“You used to be such a tightass,” she said one day. “What the hell happened? Did they take out part of your brain along with the appendix?
Maybe. I started leaving the office at 6 pm on Tuesdays so I could go to spin class. I spent entire weekends without checking email or reading submissions. And one day, I made a mistake. I can’t remember what I did exactly—that’s how minor it was—but I forgot to send an email or pass along a memo or tie off a loose end.
I still remember my boss leaning over my desk, half her face thrown into shadow by the green banker’s lamp that couldn’t ever compensate for the lack of sunlight in my office. She was annoyed, I could see that, but she seemed more surprised than anything.
“I’ve never seen you drop the ball before,” she said.
In the months after my surgery, I was torn. I cut back on work, but my free time was polluted by a haze of guilt. In my little apartment, I pulled out my typewriter (because I was a young writer in New York and I was going to use a typewriter, damnit) and set down some words about my dad, my relationship, my time in high school. All the while, though, a cloud of work-I-should-be-doing hung over my head.
In spring of 2012, a year after my surgery, I decided to leave publishing. I imagined finding a job that paid better and left my nights and weekends free. A job that would leave me with time to write on the side. I had no idea where to look, though. I went to the Goldman Sachs careers page. I researched Ph.D. programs. My head spun.
A week later, an email arrived from a recruiter at a research group. He’d seen my profile on LinkedIn, and he wanted to chat about job opportunities.
The rest, as they say, is history. A few months later, I accepted a position as a scientific recruiter. My friends furrowed their brows: “What does that even mean?”
The night after I gave notice at my publishing job, I invited a guy out for drinks. He was a new friend, someone who didn’t know me terribly well, but he worked in publishing too. Whenever we met up, I found myself studying the traces he left behind, trying to tell whether he was attracted to me or I was attracted to him, because I find these things baffling.
But anyhow. I told him how I’d given notice, and he asked, “You think it’s the right thing to do?”
“Yes, I think so.” I took a long sip of beer. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Because I wasn’t sure: Would I be happy, working in a field that wasn’t my passion? Here I was quitting my dream job so I’d have more time to write, but I’d written so little over the past few years. What if I wasn’t any good? Could writing possibly be worth the sacrifice?
I cried as I left my windowless little office with the falling-down bookcases for the last time, as I rode the elevator down to the marble-tiled lobby and handed my ID badge to the security guards. I cried and cried and cried.
World enough and time
A year or so after I left my job in publishing, I went to lunch with the woman who’d replaced me. She was doing well, but the stress, the hours, the backbreaking workload wore her down. A few months earlier, she’d developed shingles—at the age of 25.
Walking back to my office at the scientific research group, I felt a surge of relief. Relief that I’d left such a stressful job, that I’d finally structured my professional life so I’d have time to write. And I was writing—some. I’d started taking fiction classes and developed a journaling practice.
Time was only one brick in the wall, though. I still hadn't dealt with any of my old wounds—like, you know, the whole not-good-enough thing.
The following months and years taxed my energy, my inspiration, my mental wellness. I found myself with plenty of time to write but little drive to do it. And, to be honest, things got worse before they got better.
But I’ll save that story for Part Three.