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.