(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

I'm a successful book editor but I hate my job

My wife is leaving me but I can\'t feel anything. I\'m depressed. My life is falling apart. How do I reinvent myself?


Cary Tennis
November 4, 2011 4:00AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I don't know what to do. I'm 35 years old and I've worked my entire adult life with words. I've been a writer since childhood, and have had ambitions of being a full-time writer. That hasn't worked out yet but I have had essays and short stories published over the last decade, and a blog of which I'm proud.

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More specifically, I've worked at one place for my entire adult life -- a university press in the South. (I was a cashier and grocery clerk during college, and did some odd jobs in high school, but otherwise this is it.) Over the last 12 years, I've moved up slowly from editorial assistant to assistant editor to, finally, acquisitions editor. I'm responsible for bringing in 25 to 30 new books a year to the press, in a variety of academic areas, and I'm good at my job. I make $45,000 a year, a decent wage in an affordable city. I have benefits and a retirement plan. On paper, it looks great. I'm lucky to have such a steady job in this economy, and part of me feels guilty for being so miserable about this. In fact, if you had asked me five years ago where I would like to be, I would have said something like this.

The thing is, I hate it. I got the job I thought I wanted, I worked hard to get there, and I hate it. I spend so much time at work dealing with administrative affairs and shuffling paper that I don't get to expend much energy on actually finding and editing new books -- the job's primary focus seems like an afterthought to the busywork. Truthfully, though, I just don't like editing books nearly as much as writing and planning my own. I thought editing would connect me to writing but, in fact, it's driven me away from it. I'm so drained from working with words at my job that, when I get home, I no longer have the energy to create my own. That, in turn, makes me depressed, which has affected my relationship with my wife so much that the marriage is heading for divorce.

I feel trapped by the job. I think book editing isn't for me. It's something that I'm good at but not something that I like doing. And, now, even writing's no longer a joy. Maybe that's not for me, either. But I don't have job experience at anything else. I don't know what to do with myself if creating and manipulating words isn't part of the plan. I've got a crushing $18,000 credit-card debt so I can't just quit. I know I need to reinvent myself -- my wife is clearly moving on to her creative passions and what she wants out of life; it's high time I do the same. But I don't have the first idea as to how to do it. I can't even see new directions or new possibilities for myself. All I see is fear of failure, being in debt forever, and working a comfortable job that makes me miserable. I'm on an antidepressant, and I'm hoping that will help me see daylight but right now it's all darkness.

I know in my head that there are options for me. But I can't seem to connect my head to my heart, and it's killing me. What would you advise? How can I start reinventing myself? How can I start liking what I do again?

Spinning My Wheels in the Mud

Dear Spinning My Wheels,

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For two days I have been walking around thinking I know what to say to you. I have been writing clever-sounding things about the changing publishing business. But the closer I have gotten to deadline, the more uncomfortable I have become.

When that happens, I know what to do. So I reread the letter. That is how I work. I go back to the letter, asking the letter what it is saying. And usually something leaps out. Something leapt out. It was that line about your head and your heart not being connected and how it's killing you.

Well, sure. That I understand.

Like I say, I have been thinking about this column for two days.

You need somewhere to go with all this. The way to stop feeling disconnected is to connect. Only connect. Who said that? Some poet.

How? Well, again, I think you know the answer. It's maybe not this time by poetry. It's what happens in therapy. You're too suffocated in words right now to get connected by poetry. It will just go into your brain and sit there. You need something else.

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If the person who prescribed you the antidepressants has some time for you, go see that person. Tell that person you need to allow some feelings to arise. Ask that person to guide you to those feelings. You will find energy in those feelings. They will be a source of strength. If the person who prescribed your antidepressants doesn't have time for you, then find a room somewhere where you can share what is going on.

Of course, if you are anything like me, and I suspect you are, you would prefer to go about your day-to-day business without this troublesome matter of breaking down and sobbing. You would like not bothering to break down and sob. That would be convenient. It would be convenient not to have to feel these things. But they are there. So that is where you need to go.

It won't kill you. What's killing you is not doing it. More like it will save your life. Just give in to it. Be a mess for a while. Have somebody prop you up. Find a shoulder.

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You also need to get out in nature. You might feel like burying yourself in some leaves. That wouldn't be bad -- spend an afternoon in the autumn woods somewhere, covered in yellow leaves. It might be what you have to do.

You don't need to reinvent yourself. Not yet. You just need to acknowledge what's going on right now. That's not as interesting as reinventing yourself but it will make you happier.

What is your heart saying? Is your heart broken? Talk to your heart. Draw a picture of your heart. Use crayons. What does your heart say?

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What if your head came calling on your heart with hat in hand? What would your heart say? Might it tell your head to stop trying to do its work for it? Might your heart tell your head to shut up for a while?

How could your heart tell your head this in words your head could respect? Maybe your heart would tell your head that many things necessary to human happiness are beyond words.

Maybe the heart needs to sit barefoot in the words.

I meant to type "sit barefoot in the woods" but I typed "sit barefoot in the words."

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Weird. Maybe words are like leaves in the brain, how we want to cover ourselves with them, how they yellow in the fall and flutter down from trees.

Maybe there is something to that. Maybe your words have tight shoes on. Maybe not. Let's not overdo it.

Me, I am waiting for the rain. I am listening to jazz and waiting for the rain and drinking tea. Assam tea is the tea I am drinking and it has sugar in it and I am not doing much else except typing these words to you. The guitarist I am listening to is Kenny Burrell. It is the Paul Chambers Quartet playing "Chasin' the Bird" from 1957 when I was 4. That is about it.

So now after two days of trying to be smart I have given up and I suggest you give up too. These knots we tie ourselves up in can be untied. We just need to somehow get back in the roiling body of heartache. It's where we're living anyway.

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It used to be the only way I could get into that roiling body of heartache was to get drunk. I was scared I guess. Sure. Who wants to see a guy blubbering. It's disgusting, you think. It's disgusting and weak and unmanly but if he's drunk then it's sort of funny and you can forget about it except when people tell you the next day, when they are solicitous and worried and they put a hand on that shoulder of yours and ask if you are OK.

But you don't have to do that. There are better and more dignified ways to break down in a puddle of blubbering sorrow. There is an office somewhere with tissues. Maybe someone will get a tissue for you or maybe if you are lucky you will find that you are both breaking down and you will see that your grief is not just yours. That will make you feel better. We need this in our culture. We need places to go when we are falling apart inside. Those of us who are addicts are lucky. We have such places. I don't know how the rest of the world gets by, I really don't.

People always say, Tell him this, Tell him that, don't tell him this, don't tell him that, like as if they were there too. That's like it was in my family, everybody talking at once. But I am talking to you like you were some made-up brother who is closer in certain ways but not in others. A brother who doesn't know how full of bullshit I am maybe.

So this is what I send to you finally. Not a big piece about the new high-margin, low-volume, high-touch business versus the old low-margin, high-volume, low-touch business. Not that. I will go put that on my own blog or something. It's sort of poppycock.

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This is about getting your head and your heart connected.

That's a doable thing. You'll be OK once that starts happening. And it's not hard. You just pretty much have to stop stopping it from happening.


Cary Tennis

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