Discover more from By Tony Russo
At Least I’m Better Than James Patterson
I hate to start with apologies and excuses, but it has been just about three months. An explanation is in order.
Back in April or May I started having trouble finding work and decided to lay off freelancing and get a straight job, which turned out to be harder than I expected. Before the pandemic, I was in the minority of people who could confidently function working from home, having done that at least part-time for the last decade, maybe more. Obviously, that changed once the rest of the world spent 18 months working from home, which made finding a job I wanted, could be good at, paid well, and didn’t require me to put on pants more difficult.
There is nothing about going to an office that appeals to me. Even the few work friendships I cultivated are now virtual anyway. Many of these are good people (some of them may be you). Still, in my experience, the office world is 90% petty assholes pointlessly blathering while striving to do as little as possible. Mostly, I just want to write my kooky stories and be left alone.
I’ve never interviewed for a job and not gotten an offer. In fact, I’ve never had to apply for multiple jobs over any extended period of time. I’ve been fortunate that way for the 35 years I’ve been working, but this year’s double-whammy sent me to a darkish place.
Whammy number one was the disappointing performance of Dragged Into the Light. I had written back in April about struggling in the aftermath of publishing but I honestly hadn’t written anything longform worth reading in almost two months by then. I’d retreated into book reviews because they’re fun and you get to siphon-off someone else’s creative energy.
Whammy number two was the fact that employers weren’t stumbling over one another to offer me jobs. I’d been very selective in late 2021/early 2022, only applying for things I was perfect for, and I didn’t even get a bite.
I’m not going to lie, the inclusive-hiring policies disclaimer at the end of every submission form or application process started to wear on me a little. Following every lengthy auto-Q&A, I had to affirm that I wasn’t Gay, Black, Trans, a woman, disabled, a veteran, a disabled Gay Black veteran, etc.
I started taking it personally. For a little while, anyway.
When you’re down, it’s convenient to lay off a crisis of confidence on the world and culture rather than face your own inadequacies and foibles. Fortunately, self-awareness is among my vanities. I try to be aware of my cultural privilege because I’d rather be a jerk on purpose than by accident.
That said, I’m in my 50s and never had a full understanding of how unnerving and demoralizing it is to wonder whether you weren’t hired for who you are rather than for a lack of skill. I knew (and was properly outraged by the fact) that most people deal with this ambiguity all the time. It was a new experience for me, though, and realizing that it was only fair was poor comfort.
I’ve written before that ignorance is fine as long as you don’t cling to it. Stupid people cling to ignorance as their right to not ever have to change. I don’t mind discovering that I’ve been ignorant because I know there’s a cure.
Fortunately, that’s as far as it went, mostly because excuses and blaming are loser talk, easy rationalizations that failures whisper to themselves.
To be clear: I don’t believe for a second (OK a minute) that I was sorted into the old white guy pile. There is no old white guy pile. There probably is a pile of people unlikely to say anything new and another pile of people who haven’t demonstrated they have anything interesting to say. If I ended up in any of those piles, that was on me.
While I’ll admit that there are occasional geniuses who go unrecognized in their lifetimes, they’re so rare as to approach being fictional. I am not one of them. If people don’t get me or my writing it’s only because I’m not doing a good enough job.
It absolutely is possible that every company that needs professional writers has a Post-It up that says, “Don’t hire old white guys.” What I figured was more likely, though, is that my tone and approach were all wrong. My cover letters very likely had arrogance issues, as if I were writing to correct an oversight, essentially saying:
“I see you’re looking for a managing editor. Clearly, you were unaware that I was in the market for a job. I can start whenever.”
I had started writing about this experience, trying to pull apart the realization that I had to try harder and be more humble when alleged fiction mill owner James Patterson made his tearful complaint about racism against old white guys:
"What's that all about?" Patterson mused. "Can you get a job? Yes. Is it harder? Yes. It's even harder for older writers. You don't meet many 52-year-old white males."
I guess that’s what happens when you’re used to having other people make your general ideas take form. Worse, though, it colored the essay I thought I wanted to write in a way I couldn’t recover from.
One of my great difficulties is I don’t want to sound like the other banal reactionaries. I never want to jump into the fray and rehash basic and obvious arguments that whatever two sides have formed around a topic already have outlined.
After having found something of my own I thought I could write about, this oaf comes stumbling in like a drunk uncle at Thanksgiving, drawing a fictional line over which two sides were expected to shout at one another.
I kind of owe him, though, especially as one of the eponymous 52-year-old white males he was lamenting. It was jarring to hear how pathetic those worries sounded out loud, how whiny. Especially as I struggled to find a way to describe how easy it was to blame the world for changing rather than doubling down and working harder.
I already had changed my cover letters in tone and tenor and as a result slipped easily back into my old persona, competent and also confident as opposed to the reverse. By the time Twitter turned on old James I had three job offers and took the one that appealed to me as a long-term proposition.
On top of that, my book had taken silver for True Crime in the IPPY awards (which I wrote about here) and my audiobook had a nice (if unexpected) sales bump.
Even as I talk about validation being secondary it’s important to admit I’ve been paralyzed since June. I used to think my greatest fear was not saying something when it needed to be said. As it turned out, yowling like a wounded animal because I can’t understand cultural change is a close second.
The idea of being ignorant of my own ridiculousness haunts me, which is good to a point. I used to have a knack for overcoming that fear and didn’t even notice it had faded.
Every story idea seemed more pointless than the last. I even had stopped writing personal letters, which I think of as the height of owning my ridiculousness. There is still some of that, like a fog I have to account for before I sit down to write.
I’ve started sitting down again, though. I mailed out three months’ worth of birthday letters and wrote the first new thousand words for my next book that I’ve managed since April. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even knock something out on Medium again before the new year.
That was a long way of saying that I’ve been struggling with the meaning and purpose of writing and it crippled me.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be talking about all the things I couldn’t find the energy to talk about, my covid summer vacation, the death of local journalism, how little movie theaters really mean to us. I’ve even been tinkering with what may be my last Delmar politics story — you know, all the happy takes on mundane topics that attract me.
Keep the Faith,
As I mentioned, I got a sweet new gig. It’s covering the funeral industry for a company that is kind of the name in death-care press. “Death care” isn’t even the coolest piece of jargon I’ve learned so far. There are so many deep, rich topics in an industry ripe for radical change. A lot of what I’m writing is subscription-only and pretty inside baseball, but I’ll throw some cool facts in here occasionally.
The podcast will return this week as well.
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