By Jim Thomsen
It was one of the best moments of my life.
In early 2010, I learned that my position as a copy editor at a daily newspaper would be eliminated. The news left me more than a little panicky. I was in my mid-forties, and my skill set was strictly old-school. I didn’t care to adapt to a world in which the platforms on which the news was delivered had become more important than the quality of the news itself. A world in which people in jobs like mine were being washed away in a sea of red ink and poor vision and bad decisions and crushing indifference.
I knew that my job was going away, but, in a casual bit of corporate cruelty, I wasn’t told when. A few months, maybe. We don’t know. We’ll let you know.
That left me not only scared, but angry. At the world, at myself. I was angry at how cost-cutting had chipped away at good journalism, but I was angry with myself for growing fat and complacent on a union-cushioned job with an hourly wage far better than that of my colleagues at non-Guild papers. What would become of me? Was there any place in the job market for somebody who worked well with words, and words alone?
As 2010 dragged on, with the layoff date pushed back time after time as a major corporate consolidation lurched forward at glacial speed, I decided to pump up my savings by pumping up a sideline I’d had for a few years — editing book manuscripts for novel-writing friends. At the time of the layoff announcement, it had been good for maybe an extra five or six thousand dollars a year.
But I never saw book editing as a way to replace my income. It involved things I had never contemplated and thus assumed that I’d never be good at. Things like launching my own business, doing my own accounting and marketing, developing a different editing skill set to the point that I could compete for jobs with people who had been doing it all their professional lives.
I blundered away at it, however, spreading the word on social media, stumbling around at writers’ conferences and shoving my business cards and brochures at anyone who would look at them. I’d come home from the newspaper well after midnight, boil up a pot of coffee, and sprawl on the couch and doggedly mark up somebody’s manuscript till the dawn started to bleed through.
Still, I didn’t really believe it could do anything other than maybe buy me a little time to find another “real” job.
That’s where things stood on January 18, 2011. That was the day the ax fell.
I walked away with unemployment benefits and a little bit of severance money, enough to hang on to my house for a few more months if I didn’t find another job right away.
I also walked away with a weird, jittery feeling of pity for those who didn’t lose their jobs: They’re still trapped in the death spiral of the industry. They have to live with the reality that the good days in the newspaper business are gone, forever, and they have to clock in for work each day with a black cloud full of things they can’t control hanging over their heads.
On the other hand, I was free.
I might not find a job anytime soon, I knew, but anything was better than coming to work each day knowing my job was a literal dead end. Knowing that had poisoned my life, my relationships, the care and attention I had once enthusiastically brought to my job. It had turned me into a moody, brooding, bitter, self-pitying misanthrope.
Now I had been freed from my hate. In the crisp January cold, I walked out to my car, arms full with a box of journalism awards, in a strangely ebullient mood. I was confident that I could face whatever came next, even if I had no idea what came next.
And, that current of goofy good feeling held firm. Even as I lost my house and had to move in with my sister. Even as I failed to get a job interview, let alone a job, over the next several months.
I took the little money I had in reserve and parlayed it into further pumping up my side business … pretty much, for lack of anything better to do. I blundered around on social media. I bought every author or editor I could find a drink or a meal. I went to every writers’ conference I could find in Oregon and Washington. I studied my craft so hard that the Chicago Manual of Style became my nightly bedtime reading.
The money started to melt away.
Then, somewhere around Christmas, as I was contemplating facing the New Year from a cardboard box under a bridge somewhere, it happened.
The work started to pour in.
It wasn’t a bit gradual.
Somehow, in some surreal mix of goofball confidence, social aggressiveness, growing skill and a little actual talent, I had made it. Or was starting to. Maybe. I didn’t trust it, and yet, on some level beyond, or beneath, the rational … I did. It was a drunken feeling, a little George Baileyesque maybe, and yet unshakeable.
And I’m still here, to make a long story slightly less short.
And happily tearing my hair out over billing and sample edits and estimates and quarterly taxes and time management and twelve-hour days seven days a week most weeks.
And I’m still glad I’m nowhere near the newspaper business.
And I still think of January 18, 2011 as the day I was reborn.
The day I was given the gift of getting kicked out of my job. And my complacency.
Jim Thomsen is the owner and operator of Desolation Island Editing Services. He lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington.