Wednesday, August 22, 2007

My Layoff Memoir: Part 1, Financial Stability

I'm more than halfway through the new book and making steady progress. Normally, this is the phase where I stall out and lose interest, but I'm even more into it. Because SciFi is doing their usual obnoxious thing and not showing new episodes of their current shows on the Friday night of a holiday weekend, I've set a target goal at which I'll let myself order those Doctor Who DVDs from Amazon as my book completion reward so I can have them by next Friday -- and then I have to be good and stay on target to actually finish the book. I'd like to be able to take all of Labor Day weekend off. I have my Second Annual Rosa Vargas Memorial Chick Lit and Chick Flick Weekend already planned (it's actually the third time I've done it, but the first time, which kicked off the tradition, wasn't memorial, as much of it was conducted via telephone with Rosa). This year, I'm going with a Pride and Prejudice theme, as there are a number of books out that play with elements from P&P, and I haven't watched the whole BBC miniseries in ages.

So, as I promised/threatened, here's my riches-to-rags-to-riches layoff story, only in my case it's more like financial stability-to struggle-to doing moderately okay but still not entirely secure. See, that's why my story wouldn't make a good book. Not only did I never need to file for unemployment, I don't even own a Prada bag to take to the unemployment office. Even when I had a steady job, I bought my purses at Target or in the handbag outlet at the mall.

My day job career was in public relations, and during the height of the tech boom starting in the late 90s I worked in technology PR for one of the big, worldwide agencies. And I hated it. Hate, hate, hate, hate haaaaaate. It was a definite case of having the right skill set and the totally wrong personality for the job. Yes, I was good at communicating, I could find the heart of the story in just about anything, I could explain complex things in a vaguely interesting way, and I could write, but I have a telephone phobia and I am an extreme introvert. I also wasn't particularly ambitious, as this job to me was the equivalent of waiting tables while trying to land an acting job. I just needed to pay the bills until I could support myself as a novelist. I'd had some books published, and I even had an agent, but I was nowhere near that goal.

What I think I hated most of all was the weird sense of masochism that permeates the entire American corporate culture, that idea that you win points for working the most hours, regardless of what you actually accomplish during that time. There was this weird competition to demonstrate your commitment to your job by coming in early, working late, taking work home with you, working on weekends or even putting a futon in your office and spending the night there. If you came in at eight and left at five, you were a slacker, even if you actually got more and better results. "Working smarter, not harder" didn't really mean anything in our industry. And it wasn't as though we were like a law firm, billing hourly, and therefore all those extra hours were more profitable for the company. Most of our clients were on retainer, so they paid the same, regardless of how much we worked. A little overservice was good, to show the client that there was a value in being on retainer (and the retainer helped us determine staff and budgeting), but the workaholic masochism meant that our clients were generally getting twice the hours they were paying for, and I really don't think they were getting that much more work. I never really figured out what all those people were doing in that time. Unless I was in the middle of a big crunch or a major project, I could get everything done that I needed to do in a few hours, and then I got bored. I spent a lot of time chatting about Broadway shows with the Army intern whose office was across the hall from me (and yes, he was straight -- very interesting guy). In that business, being quick and efficient only seemed to get you accused of not being committed to your career, so I got in the habit of staying later and padding my projects just to fill up the time. And there's nothing more frustrating than feeling like you have to hang around the office until after seven even though you don't really have anything to do.

During this time, I was trying to write a book. I'd had some category romance novels published and had written a single title book that landed me an agent, but then it got rejected with nice comments by the publishers she sent it to, who asked to see something else from me (never mind that she sent it to only two publishers, but that's a whole 'nother story). I just couldn't seem to find the time and energy to write the something else, and it didn't seem to occur to me to try writing it at work while I was padding my hours to look like I was part of the team. I think around that time I actually got pretty busy, as I was doing trade show media relations for a major company, and I spent most of the fall of 1999 traveling, then had to pick up the rest of my work when I was actually in the office. During this whole time, I was socking away money in savings, having a chunk of each paycheck direct deposited into my savings account. All money I made writing went into savings, and when I got a raise, I just put the difference between the old salary and the new salary into savings. So when we were projecting hours for the coming month and the plan had me nearly doubling the amount of time I would work, I kind of had a meltdown and turned in my resignation. I figured I could live off my savings while I wrote for a while.

Fortunately, I had a very cool new boss who didn't really buy into that corporate masochism thing and we were in a real hiring crunch because we couldn't find enough qualified people, so my boss worked out a compromise with me. My specialty was writing, and I was the one who could handle the really heavy-duty technology stuff, so they created an editorial director position for me, let me telecommute, and let me drop back to part-time. At 30 hours a week, I took a pay cut, but I still got full benefits. I probably did the same amount of work as I did at full time, but by calling it part-time, that meant I got to call a hard stop on it. I couldn't work more than 30 hours a week, and if I did during a crunch, I got to take comp time later. It was my dream job (other than being a novelist).

But then I discovered that being happy in my job was actually bad for my writing. When I hated my work, I was more determined to write diligently because that was my escape plan. When I was okay with the way things were, I wasn't quite as driven. I was also really enjoying having free time instead of working full time and then coming home and writing. I think most of my extra time ended up going into discussing Angel on Usenet. But hey, that was where I first started playing with all the archetype stuff, so it wasn't totally wasted time. And I think most of my writing time ended up going into Angel fanfic. Again, not a total waste of time as that was where I first tried writing multi-character scenes and action scenes, and the first time I ever wrote in first-person, it was in an Angel fanfic story. I did eventually get the book done, and my agent (supposedly) submitted it. I also wrote a couple of other book proposals, and I even got a promotion and a raise at work. I still traveled a lot, as I'd more or less become the technology writing expert for the whole company, and I had one major client where due to a mix-up, I ended up having to write a speech for the CEO at the last second, and he liked it enough that he started having me write more of his speeches. When the CEO at your biggest client likes you, things are really going your way.

Of course, something that good can't last forever ... (To be continued)

1 comment:

Jessica Burkhart said...

It definitely helps writing when TV keeps showing reruns! ;)