Welcome to End It Now?, a narrative advice column. In each installment, Alissa Nutting and Dean Bakopoulos will address a question from a reader who is thinking about quitting something: a relationship, a job, a habit, a project. Dean and Alissa will respond with stories from their lives and the lives of others, and then deliver a verdict: Should the letter-writer end it now, or not so much, and why?
Dear Alissa and Dean,
I’m a book publicist who loves books but hates being a publicist. I’ve been at my job for several years and think about quitting every day. The problem is, I think I’m pretty good at my job. Also, I really like my coworkers; I like my schedule; I like my job security. But although we publish a good book here and there, we also put out a lot of trash, and every time I have to send a pleading email to a respected journalist, I die a little bit inside.
In a perfect world, I’d quit my job to write. But I’m pretty sure that’s what everyone would do in a perfect world.
The way I see it, I have two options: stay and accept my fate of forever sending emails nine to five, or quit and face the frightening unknown of starting over. What do I do?
A Publicist in Distress
DEAN: I once knew an elderly woman, notoriously cheap, who would occasionally ask me to help her out with small household tasks. Sometimes, she would ask me to look at a malfunctioning appliance, such as a coffee maker or a television, to see if I could fix it for her. I am a helpful sort of guy, but not particularly handy, and I never could fix anything for her. And so I always offered to dispose of the broken item, and head over to Target and buy her a new one.
“Oh no,” she’d say. “Let it rest for a week or so. It’ll get better.”
To my knowledge, no toaster or microwave ever healed on its own.
This is one reason we write this column—in the past, both of us have stayed with, lo, even clung to, situations that were broken. Sometimes, we would let them rest. But when we came back to look at whatever was on the fritz, the damage was still done, the malfunction as clear as ever.
The reality is, if you are at a job where you find yourself “dying inside” on a daily basis (even if it’s just a tiny amount of death), you need to do something. Obviously, you could throw the job in the trash and head out in search of a new one, though maybe that’s a bit too rash for anyone who depends on a monthly paycheck, as we always have.
ALISSA: How much does your current job tap into your own writing energy? There’s “hanger” that comes from the specific ire of not having eaten, and I wonder what term we might coin for the feeling of needing to write but not being able to. “Wanger” sounds too pornographic. “Wrage”? “Wrirritability?”
If you’re in the way of my writing when I am in a certain zone, I’m gonna do you wrong. It doesn’t matter who you are nor how much I love you. And when you’re having to put your own writing on hold, publishing-industry and book-related jobs can sometimes feel particularly sadistic.
DEAN: For six years after college, I had two dream jobs: I worked as the head buyer for a large independent bookstore in the Midwest and later served as founding director of a major literary festival. Both jobs felt incredibly literary—I curated a selection for a progressive, brainy store in a cool college town, I hosted a number of events with bestselling and award-winning authors, and I read constantly, lending my endorsements to my favorite new books each season and building lasting relationships in the publishing industry. My supervisors were supportive, my colleagues were cool, and my schedule was fairly perfect. And yet.
Back home, I had this novel I wanted to write. And I knew that as much as I loved other people’s books, I didn’t want to promote them anymore. In short, after too many days at my desk, feeling like I was dying inside, I resigned in order to focus on my own work. (In exchange for a stipend, free tuition, and health insurance, I enrolled in the MFA program down the street at UW-Madison.)
My instinct was to cling to these bookish jobs—there were almost no other jobs like them in the country—and yet I knew I needed to focus on my work. (Both of these jobs, thanks to the economic recession of the last decade, no longer exist, and so clinging to them, it turns out, would have been very foolish indeed.)
ALISSA: People do leave amazing jobs all the time, just like people break up with amazing human beings. There’s the cliché excuse it’s not you; it’s me , but when that’s actually true, it’s incredibly difficult. When you’re quitting a horrible job, or dumping someone you’ve realized is an asshole, there’s an empowering sense of relief. But leaving a wonderful person you should click with and don’t? Leaving a job that’s the envy of all your friends? That can cause a surge of doubt and feelings of inadequacy: What’s wrong with me for not being able to make this good thing work? But when you can’t and the chemistry is off for whatever reason, you know. And you need to admit that you know and take steps to move forward.
Jobs are insidiously hard to compartmentalize. So is dying inside. The worst job I ever worked coincided with the most self-destructive behavior I ever engaged in—I’d end my shift ready to go do anything in order to feel alive and escape my life. I was allegedly working it in order to pay off debt and save money. But I was so miserable that I was spending far more than I was making, trying to get momentary bursts of happiness. I wasn’t saving anything. I spent my lunch hours downing pitchers of beer at the Hooters down the street then eating half a tin of Altoids to cover the smell. When you’re dying inside, you start to screw things up. I made some “interesting” “choices.” I moved into an airstream camper and eloped. Shocker: Things did not work out. Not with the job. Not with the marriage.
But with the marriage, I did try. What we are and aren’t able to compromise upon changes wildly throughout our lives, as do the conditions we need to be productive as writers. Often, our responsibilities make a lot of choices for us. The fact that, even in distress, your letter points out a lot of positive qualities about your job is worth paying attention to.
To return to the relationship metaphor, it’s tempting to reduce solutions to binaries—stay or go—but usually, absent abuse, if things aren’t working with our partner, we attempt to fix the relationship before we give up and bail.
DEAN: The first step we would take is a simple one: Talk to your supervisor, or at least a trusted senior colleague, about your dissatisfaction and boredom. You say you’re good at what you do, and the working environment seems far from hostile, so, in all likelihood, your employer would love to keep you. Recruiting and training new employees requires significant cost and energy. So you should ask: Are there any opportunities to make a move within your company (or another)? Maybe your skills could translate well into something besides publicity, like editorial or acquisitions?
If modifying your job (or changing to another) within publishing still leaves you feeling stuck, the cause may be the field rather than the position. Not working on other people’s books during the day might mentally free you up to dive into your own writing during your personal time. Don’t be afraid to look for work outside of publishing. Your current position qualifies you for lots of non-industry jobs, many of which let you leave your desk (and your email inbox) more, like community relations for a progressive business, event planning for a nonprofit you admire, organizing around a political issue you believe in, etc. Working in another field, you won’t have to associate books and writing with day job drudgeries, which might make writing feel more inspired and fun.
You will probably never like this job, in its current form, more than you do today. In all likelihood, you will hate it more and more, unless there can be significant change and compromise.
As a first step, check with your boss to see what changes might be possible. If none are, or if, even with adjustments, you’re still pretty miserable, find another job and end it now.
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