I’ve been very public about my belief that non-academic day jobs, can be an opportunity for writers, rather than a consolation prize for not landing directly on the tenure track. My personal story is that even though I did an MFA, after teaching for a few years, I just didn’t see a way that I could ever pay off my student loans through a combination of adjunct work and picking up shifts at a temp agency. I didn’t have a book and I didn’t want to do a PhD, so I wasn’t well-positioned for a full-time position in higher education. Statistically, this may not have made a huge amount of difference anyway.
I liked teaching, but it felt strange to be in my mid-twenties and not see any kind of career path. I transitioned out of higher education, starting by taking a job at a construction company as an administrative assistant to begin to change my resume. Jobs I had done up to that point, outside of being an educator, included: warehouse fruit-sorter, telemarketer, grocery store clerk and cashier, cellphone salesperson, banquet server, sprinkler maintenance appointment-setter, and agricultural produce sticker-packer.
One thing I really liked about being a teacher was that, despite departmental politics and all the angling that goes on there, in one’s one own classroom there is often a lot of freedom. Educators have a boss, but that boss often has her own classes and her own students; she’s not sitting nearby, checking your work hourly.
Living in Seattle then, I had my eye on a tech role, because, again, I needed money. It took three years, hundreds of applications, and dozens of interviews. Job hunting is like writing or dating in that way—the more comfortable you get with rejection the better off you’ll be. Over a period of a decade and a half, much of that autonomy I remembered from the classroom returned, and the day job transformed from a slog into something that was in fact intellectually challenging as I moved into senior roles. What I didn’t expect when I started, and what was ultimately a gift, was the ability to mentor people who were younger than me or at different career stages. I still formally mentor women who are un- or under-employed.
At the same time, writing always tugged at me. My job was stressful. It was sometimes emotionally toxic. I often felt like I was doing both things, the writing work and the wage work, half-assed. Frankly, this is one of the reasons I decided to not have children.
I’m in my forties now. I left my tech career two years ago, after fifteen years in the corporate marketing channel, to focus more on writing. While I still believe in the value of a day job—indeed, doing those past day jobs are the only way I can work mostly as a freelancer now, and my student loans have been long paid off—what I have never talked about publicly is how much and how often I just wanted to quit. I wanted to quit all the time. I think most people who have a regular job also feel this way. You, reader, if you are day-jobbing it and often want to quit, are not alone.
Once, at a tradeshow that was slow, I said to the woman next to me, Soooo, do you ever just want to sell everything you own and move to Mexico? She paused for a moment, which scared me, but then was like, Eh, more like eastern Europe for me. I have family in Slovakia. We watched the people in their suits and biz casual swirl around us, and I just thought, well, shit. What if we did actually did it? That was in San Diego in 2016. We went out later and got drunk on the corporate accounts, but I didn’t keep in touch with her. It took me another three years to leave my job. I did go to Bratislava, Slovakia in the winter of 2019, newly, voluntarily unemployed, and I remembered her, us both considering as we stood in our stupid branded outfits on hard floors, both thinking, What if we were somewhere else?
Below is a list of books that resonate for me in that zone: when you recognize that it’s beneficial to stay employed, but you really, really, really want to leave, and probably should if you can swing it, but don’t quite know how.
Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee
This 2018 instant classic captures the ideas and the pitfalls of upward mobility via protagonist Casey Han. What I love about this book is how Lee captures how soulless and ridiculous corporate life can be, but also how urgent and important it can feel when one is in it—when you are trying to change your class, when you are trying to manage your debt, when you are trying to understand your place in the world. It’s spot-on and laser-sharp.
Severance by Ming La
There has been much said about the ending of Severance; I won’t include a spoiler, in case you haven’t read it. This post-apocalyptic story opens with Candace Chen, a millennial who for some time chooses money over her own safety, working in an office tower as people die around her. Severance was published in 2018, and the pandemic has changed the economic landscape significantly since then. Still, the book captures how we’re willing give up so much for economic security. It’s a read that is both escapist in the world that it builds and cutting in its honesty. Regarding the ending, for me it’s a question of whether I think Candace knows what she is doing.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Emira, a young Black woman, has her life is turned upside down after a racist event at work goes viral. Then, her white employer attempts to capitalize on it. This was a popular book when it came out in 2019, and with good reason. Reid illuminates the dynamics of power between employer and employee. Emira is somewhat ambivalent through most of the novel—she doesn’t want to be the center of controversy, she just wants to live her life and do her job—but ultimately, with a the help of friend, she exposes her boss’s racism in a public way. Emira gets revenge in a way most employees only dream of. One thousand high-fives.
Edie Richter Is Not Alone by Rebecca Handler
Edie’s life is something of a disaster. She has murdered her elderly and ill father (not a spoiler; this happens in the book’s opening pages) and though this is an act of compassion, it understandably troubles her. In an attempt to distance herself from the tragedy that would have happened anyway but which she accelerated, she moves to Perth, Australia with her husband and works remote as a grant writer. Edie is talented in her field, but employment turns out to be not enough to keep her grounded. I kind of just want to give her a hug.
Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang
Chang’s Chinese American protagonist has some misgivings about her relationship with J, a white man who moves to upstate New York for graduate school. Though she has a job of her own at as staff writer at a large media outlet and reports on tech superstars, she follows J for a shot at love and a chance to remake herself. Her career suffers from lack of exposure at the office, even though she is working her ass off. And, even as she turns in copy describing billionaires, her own requests for a meager raise are denied. Relatable.
The Hare by Melanie Finn
Stranded by her upper-crust but broke husband in an uninsulated cabin and struggling to make ends meet, Rosie must keep herself safe from spousal violence—and handle her embezzling boss. Rosie cares for her daughter, Miranda, and tries to figure out the woodstove. Life is really hard for her. Her boss is fully terrible, though maybe not exactly as terrible as her estranged husband. It is Rosie’s anger, paired with her ability to act on it, that makes me love her.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Vincent works at a luxury hotel as a bartender on Vancouver Island. When she meets Jonathan they enter into a deal, and Vincent poses as his wife and plays sophisticated nice at parties and social events. As Jonathan’s Ponzi-esque business falls apart, Vincent disappears. A commentary on the spoils of greed and how to come back from it, Vincent is a women who knows her own mind. This is a gorgeous book.
Mona at Sea by Elizabeth Gonzalez James
Set in the late 2000s Great Recession, this debut novel’s millennial protagonist Mona is fired before she can even start her Wall Street gig. Moving back to her parent’s house in Tucson, Mona has to come to terms with what it means to be unemployed and how her unemployment relates to her sense of self-worth. A novel that balances a biting sense of humor with the drudgery of reality, Mona at Sea addresses how jobs inform our sense of self. Mona needs a job, but I actually didn’t want her to find one.
Love, Death, & Photosynthesis by Bela Koe-Krompecher
This book is sad and funny and captures that time before real day-jobbing, reminding me what I loved about those years and also the consequences of staying in party mode for too long. This non-fiction debut from Koe-Krompecher explores the intersection of art and addiction, and reads like talking to a friend who has been through some shit while an excellent soundtrack plays in the background.
Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu
Chinese American Willa Chen takes a job as a nanny with a rich white family and forges a relationship with their daughter, Bijou. What is compelling to me about this book is the way that Willa comes to understand that even if you love your job, a job can never love you back. This is especially true of service jobs, even though these are roles that take so much more emotional input. I felt for her.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Wendy’s new collection, What If We Were Somewhere Else, out now from Santa Fe Writers Project! – Ed.
What If We Were Somewhere Else by Wendy J. Fox
What If We Were Somewhere Else is the question everyone asks in these linked stories as they try to figure out how to move on from job losses, broken relationships, and fractured families. Following the employees of a nameless corporation and their loved ones, these stories examine the connections they forge and the choices they make as they try to make their lives mean something in the soulless, unforgiving hollowness of corporate life. Looking hard at the families to which we are born and the families we make, What If We Were Somewhere Else asks its own questions about what it means to work, love, and age against the uncertain backdrop of modern America.