Three Years Ago Today

On January 14, 2009, I was laid off as Editorial Director of Sterling Publishing’s Union Square Press, an imprint of narrative nonfiction books I had been recruited to run two years earlier. I recall the anxiety I felt upon being summoned to the office of the HR director; the sick-making sensation that shot through my gut upon receiving the news; that my email was shut off by the time I returned to my office; and the way I was instructed to leave Sterling’s offices for the final time, informed that whatever personal effects I couldn’t grab then would be shipped to my home. If you’ve never had this happen to you, I must say it is not something you can prepare yourself for. Even though I was not surprised to get laid off in the middle of the worst financial crisis in eighty years, it nonetheless registered as a deep shock. Later that dark week, I sent an email to all my contacts, headed “Moving on From Sterling,” for that’s what I had already begun to do. There being no prospect for another staff position anywhere soon, in the weeks that followed I incorporated a business in the state of New York, Philip Turner Book Productions LLC, and began cultivating clients for what would be–perforce–my own editorial services business.

Now, thirty-six months to the day from January 14, 2009, looking back across my self-employment I see I’ve written jacket and catalog copy for publishers; guest-taught five straight years at a graduate school seminar for journalism students in a non-fiction book-writing class; given a fresh professional polish to the résumés and cover letters of many job-seekers, not just my own; published a personal essay about my experience working with William Styron; written, co-written, and re-written manuscripts; and brought out one book as publisher under my own name in an eponymous imprint. I find I’ve also edited a bevy of terrific manuscripts, including a generational novel about the son of a third-generation Italian-American family returning to his family’s historic village; an ambitious novel of ideas about the American presidency in 2025; a true crime thriller about a marijuana dealer marooned in a Cambodian prison; a treatise on why religious believers and atheists both miss the point about the nature of existence; and co-agented the sale to a publisher of a large-hearted examination of how America’s firefighters, cops, emergency service providers, and veterans can heal from the trauma they experience while keeping the rest of us safe and secure.

While I’ve been operating and growing my business amid publishing’s lurching transition from a model exclusively reliant on the printed book to the burgeoning ebook model, I’ve continued to feel the tug of being back inside a publishing house where books are being excitedly sized up and acquired and published with energy and focus. As a result, I’ve put my oar in for more than twenty editorial positions at publishing houses, though the penny has not yet dropped for me on any of these. Recently, I’ve been applying for open positions at political and news websites, an area–given my passion for politics, news, and media–that I’ve long been interested in pursuing. With the skills I’ve gained curating, writing, and building out this website, I feel especially well-suited to a job like that now.

I was reminded of all this early in the past week, when I wrote this post about a New York Times deliveryman in the Bay Area who’d lost his job during the holidays last month. There was also the news that Barnes & Noble, which owns Sterling Publishing, has put the company up for sale. These events have put me in mind of the time I was laid off, reminding me that in April 2009 I was interviewed for this segment on the public radio program “The Takeaway,” about the different ways that people leave jobs. For “Last Letters and Parting Shots: How to Say Goodbye at Work” a correspondent with the charming name of Femi Oke and a musical voice that went along with it, asked me to read from “Moving on From Sterling” for her story. While my part in the eight-minute segment begins at around 5:56, it’s all interesting three years after it first aired.

As I listened to it again today, I realized that in Spring 2009 my lay-off was only a few months old, and  the recession–which I date from the mid-September 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers amid the final catastrophic months of the Bush presidency–was only four months older than that. I might have been somewhat fortunate in losing my staff job relatively early in the collapse, though it’s not as if this somehow enabled me to regain a staff job more rapidly. I hadn’t yet begun to really glimpse “the long, strange trip” I was embarked upon, nor that of the rest of the country and the wider world. An uncountable number of my fellow human beings have lost their job since mine went away. Accompanying the chorus of The Grateful Dead’s “Truckin'” I just invoked, my inner musical ear is also hearing the chorus to Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.” Although I did my best to feel optimistic then, I am more hopeful now than I was then, while chastened by the whole experience.

For a blog essay like this, I would normally have quoted from my email “Moving on From Sterling.” However, in a way that seems oddly apt, my email address was hijacked last March, and I lost all my archived email prior to that date. It caused me a lot of grief at the time, but looking back on it now in regard to this anniversary, I’m not sorry about it. In fact, it seems in keeping with the line I read on “The Takeaway” about leaving the job being a kind of “liberation.” Still, the flip side of that liberation is being “at liberty”–a euphemism for being out of work. The biggest challenge of the past three years has not so much been the unemployment, but more precisely, dueling with the demons of ‘disemployment,’ a word used less frequently, but one that much more viscerally describes the specter of purposelessness, the absence of meaningful work, the loss of collegiality, and the fear of invisibility that laps like the tide at the edges of one’s sense of self.

January 15 update: Since I posted this essay yesterday I’ve gained some additional perspective, seeing now that one of the notable developments of the past three years has been finding my own self as a writer. After so many years of handling other people’s words, it was time I found my own voice. This website and blog are in aid of that. 
April Update: The website Over Fifty and Out of Work has republished this essay on their website under the title Warding off the Demons of Disemployment. A condensed version of the essay has been published in hard copy in a print magazine called NY Underscore.
23 replies
  1. Jack W Perry says:

    Enjoyed your piece. It is such a new world and the opportunities are different than before. I have been let go 3-4 times and twice from the same company! It was never about my work, but a numbers game. I got tired of that and started my own business. I am now in my 4th year as an independent and am busier than ever. I doubt I will ever go back to a ‘traditional job.’ But tradition is different too.

  2. Carol Hoenig says:

    Thanks so much, Philip, for sharing your experience. We do tend to survive, and quite nicely, don’t we when push comes to shove? It’s been over 6 years since I started my business after being let go from Borders and it was the best thing that happened to me. Congratulations, by the way, on having found your voice. It’s a confident voice–one that will make me want to continue to return to this site. Onward!

  3. Peter Quinn says:

    Wonderful piece, Philip. I think your distinction between unemployment and disemployment is absolutely brilliant. (It would make an great Op Ed.) They are, indeed, two different things, and for most people over fifty disemployment comes much closer to describing their predicament than unemployment. I retired from Time Warner in 2007, when I turned sixty (after 23 years there), just before the deluge. The people who stayed have been almost entirely wiped out. A once-great company was driven off the cliff by a bunch of greedy adventurers, and the workers paid the price. I haven’t had a bad day since I retired. It’s been such a blessing to be free of corporate America. (Fittingly on this holiday, I’m sitting in my home office, singing to myself, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last!”) If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t have the guts to get out sooner and try to make a living writing my own stuff. Anyway, I loved reading your piece. Thanks for sending it. And keep writing!

  4. Arthur Plotnik says:

    These heartfelt words nail the zeitgeist, Phil, the evisceration of values that sustained a robust publishing world. But your famed initiative is happily intact and the revived writing craft (evident in blog) a harbinger of rewarding things to come. If this geezer can still get his stuff out there, so can you, young blood. All best wishes to you and the family.

    • Philip Turner says:

      No problem, thanks for reading and commenting. This whole moderating of comments is new to me. I’ve approved the comment with no typos and I think I’ll un-approve the one with typos. Best regards to you too, Philip

  5. Steven Sussman says:

    1:10am, can’t sleep, crummy cold.
    Check my email, go thru the cycle…Aol account, Dover account, LinkedIn account and finally, Facebook account, and a note from you to visit here.
    Any of us who have been down that road know the feeling of the dis-employed;you go through this Elizabeth Kubler-Ross kind of state until you accept and move ahead….but you still get that Little Anthony and The Imperials feeling of an outsider; looking in at a world you used to be a part of.
    You say it so well, Philip…I celebrate the triumph of your freedom these past three years and know that you will relish and enjoy whatever comes next,

    • Philip Turner says:

      Hi Steve, nice to hear from you and read your great comment. It’s terrific knowing that you know what my experience has been like.

      Thanks, friend.

  6. Gwyn Headley says:

    I’m so bad at checking Facebook that I’ve only just found this piece. I can sympathise, but I’ve never been made redundant — only sacked. And that only once, when I was 28. Since then in Mike Shatzkin’s excellent phrase I’ve been ‘gainfully unemployed’. Philip, you’re working. You’ve always worked. Some work brings in regular money, other work gets sporadic payment, some none at all. All this can be managed. The important thing is to keep working. Keep alert, keep alive. You’re doing great.


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