“This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.” –T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”
The world that’s ending is my career. Given how obsessed I’ve been with it over the last 40 years, it’s somewhat disquieting that I am letting it go so easily. But the time has come. I’ve been a professional writer for 40 years, if you count back to my first paid byline while I was still in college (I profiled the technical adviser for Jaws, who worked at Stanford).
I think four decades is enough for any sane person. All the highs and lows it encompassed still seem so vivid, so important, even as they become less important.
My friends have always joshed me about my career, and how charmed it often seemed:
- I got my first job after graduation without an interview or even a resume; I had a chance meeting in Seattle’s University District with an editor who’d bought the Jaws profile, who was hiring for a new magazine he was starting.
- One time a boss called and pleaded with me: “I know you’ve been traveling a lot recently, but would you mind going to Palm Springs this December?”
- I started out as a travel editor, and knew nothing about technology. But when I was hired by a corporate publishing start-up, our only clients were technology firms. I lucked into the most lucrative gig possible for a writer in Silicon Valley: explaining computers.
- There was the insane rollercoaster month in which, in short sequence, we bought our first house; the magazine I worked for closed down; and I received a job offer at a higher salary the following weekend. (My wife never worried when I lost my job after that.)
- After the web went bust at the turn of the century, and I was surviving on unemployment checks and writing articles for 10 cents per word, I heard that a former colleague was looking for writers. She started assigning me features at a considerably higher per-word rate, reminding me that I was the one who’d recommended her for the position.
My career always had an underpinning not so much of ambition but of dissatisfaction. I always wanted something better. Whenever I was told that I didn’t get a job because I lacked a particular kind of experience, I went out and got it – news writing, product reviews, whatever was necessary. I worked a lot of places, got fired and laid off a lot, but got some nice promotions too. When I started freelancing in 2002, man, I was prepared.
I was not prepared, however, for what’s been transpiring recently. Simply put, work has become work. It doesn’t feel charmed anymore. The web has long been pushing fees down in a lot of markets; the technology market, where I’ve been working, was immune for a long time, but that’s changing. Two of the companies I work with most are for sale, and I doubt their new ownership is going to pay as well; one division has already cut its rates by 10%.
There were other issues. As Danny Glover sighed in one of the Lethal Weapon movies, “I’m getting too old for this [expletive deleted].” Much of my work comes through agencies, though I frequently work directly with their clients. I’d already been blackballed recently by one agency’s client after a call where I thought I was being assertive and they thought I was being obnoxious; I didn’t want that to be my legacy.
Around the same time, I was working with another agency’s client in the marketing department at the world’s most famous database company. The client was insisting that I use a phrase in a headline for a business-oriented white paper (this kind of behavior always made we wonder, if you know what you want written, why have you hired a writer?). But as it happened, the phrase actually had a technical connotation that would not resonate with the business audience we were trying to reach. Treading diplomatically because of the recent blackballing incident, I reminded her of this connotation. She replied that ten people had been in the meeting where they’d approved that phrase. Fortunately, the only technical person on the call sided with me.
The question looms: am I getting too old, or are the clients getting too stupid?
Even more discouraging, I started the year hunting for new business, something I’d never had to do before, and found I was talking into a dead phone. It became clear very quickly that 2016 was not going to be a banner year, income-wise, and I always said that when that happened, it was time to move on. My wife had already retired earlier this year, and although I insisted I wasn’t jealous, it turned out that I really was. It required the very best of my math skills, but I finally calculated that yes, we had put enough aside to enjoy a comfortable (though not extravagant) retirement.
And so, with few regrets, I’m letting my passion, my obsession, my focus for forty years slip away. I’m not sure what I will do with the shelves of magazines I have: the evidence of old work that I kept in order to get new work. Now there will never be new work. (Though there will be the occasional blog, and maybe even some fiction.)
I was lucky enough to be a writer in a place and a time where it was necessary (and lucrative) to have someone explain what these new machines called computers could do. I soon realized up that it was like walking into the middle of a movie: if you sit down, shut up, and pay attention, you’ll soon figure out what’s going on.
The problem is, I’ve grown too dissatisfied to deal with what’s displaying on the screen now. It’s time to take my memories – some of them distasteful, but most of them delightful – and quietly walk away.