Julia Goldberg was miserable in her career and refused to let it define her anymore. So, terrified, she quit, and finally found an answer to the question: “What do you do?”
I spent the better part of this week searching futilely for journal entries from April 2011, the month I left my job of 10 years as editor of the weekly newspaper in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The paper trail ran cold at the end of 2010, where I noted briefly: “What’s next for me? I want something next…a next chapter.” After that entry, the final 10 pages of the journal are ominously blank. I had abandoned the journal abruptly and, for good measure, stashed it in a hard-to-find spot in my home office.
My lack of words was more telling than whatever emotional documentation I was hoping to find. I had not wanted to admit publicly or privately how tired and miserable I was during my final year at my job. Doing so would have conflicted too heavily with my own sense of identity as hardworking, tireless, rock solid. But that longstanding foundation had become less a rock on which to stand than a boulder I was pushing up a steep hill each week.
Objectively, my job as editor was time-consuming and stressful. It wasn’t, obviously, President of the United States, but it was relentless, and the downturns in both the economy and the newspaper industry in 2009 had only intensified the pressures of putting out a weekly paper with a small staff and limited resources.
I had managed to make the job even more pressurized by foregoing any attempts at balance in my life. I woke up and turned on the computer. I went to the office and worked, never taking lunch. I went to the gym after work, came home, worked more, slept fitfully and then the cycle began again. A cold cup of Starbucks coffee sat on my desk every day and I would slowly sip at it in lieu of eating. I had started taking decongestants daily, as much to stave off allergy-related congestion as to curb my appetite and need for sleep. I brought home stories to edit every weekend. I had stopped trying to take vacations. Once a year the paper published a double issue and closed for a week, which I anticipated like a prisoner marking days off until parole.
I was cranky and exhausted all the time, and even moments of accomplishments—awards, breaking big stories, publishing great writing—felt elegiac, as if they would never hold the same level of triumph they had held in my earlier years on the job. I enjoyed to a degree the people in my life—my friends, my boyfriend—but mostly everything and everyone felt like an imposition on my time. Everything felt like something to get through—but get through to what?
The work itself was still meaningful and important to me, and would be until the end. But at the same time, it wasn’t just about the work anymore: My entire identity was wrapped up with my job. I didn’t really know how to be some other Julia Goldberg who wasn’t the editor of The Santa Fe Reporter. It was how people knew me, the main topic of conversation when I talked to people. It sounded good.
It was this last observation that finally spurred me to think long and hard about what I was doing. It sparked a memory of myself, 10 years earlier, when I had gotten married and then, somewhat quickly, divorced. I had realized, then, that while I liked the way it looked from the outside, inside, my marriage was miserable. I had vowed, then, to avoid making decisions based on what others might think, on how it might look, or sound.
While that was all fine and good, I still had no idea what to do, and very little time day-to-day to figure it out. I toyed with looking for another job, and became alarmed when I realized I couldn’t think of another job I wanted. Finally, I realized that what I wanted was time to figure out what I wanted. I wanted to write and finish a novel I had started several years earlier. I wanted inspiration over perspiration. As an idea, this is hardly radical, but to me it felt like jumping into an abyss. I was nothing if not goal-oriented; I was all about end game. I was not about soul-searching, time off, or regrouping. As another friend commented to me at the time, “At some point, this may get scary for you.”
And yet, at least I knew what I wanted. Finally, after some long nights with my checkbook and creative mathematics, I gave approximately two months notice, which went by in a blur as I knocked down a few big projects, cleaned out my office (which was a legendary mess) and made copious explanatory notes I was sure no one would ever read. For reasons I have never understood, news of my departure quickly resulted in people congratulating me on “my retirement” everywhere I went (I live in a fairly small town, after all). Retirement? I was in my early 40s and had just enough savings to finance the summer off and some travel before jumping into freelancing and teaching to pay the bills. On my last day of work, I drove around for half an hour before gritting my teeth to attend my farewell party, an event about which I have no recollection whatsoever. I had completely checked out.
My new journal picks up again one month after I left the paper:
“Did I think creativity could be switched on and off like a light switch? I just have to apply discipline and believe inspiration will follow.”
If the year before I left my job was marked by a sense of desperation and feeling trapped, the month that followed my departure was characterized by manic organization projects alternating with abject sloth. Relocating the contents of my office to my house had re-exemplified the need to de-clutter. Without external deadlines, I put myself on a cleaning schedule and created new “systems” for cleaning the house, which I attempted to enforce on my boyfriend. I jumped out of bed each day to clean toilets and decreed that no dishes could ever be left in the sink again. It began to occur to me I might have a case of undiagnosed OCD.
I went to Venice Beach and walked for hours on the boardwalk, grateful beyond words to not have to speak to anyone. I returned home determined to devote myself, as I had planned, to writing. I imagined that now, with time off, my ability to sit at my desk for hours writing would return, just as it often had on those rare occasions when I had time off. I wrote out schedules for myself, word count goals, page-count requirements. But the more I tried to discipline myself, the worse it got. I wasn’t inspired. I wasn’t creative. I didn’t feel like doing anything except watching movies, having cocktails, and leaving town. I realized I had already begun to treat my time off as something that needed to be controlled and partitioned; organized and dolled out. Enough, I thought, with you and your little self-imposed prisons. I spent the rest of the summer doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I went to Zurich and Paris. I learned to sleep through the night. I ate three meals a day and stopped weighing myself. When I ran into people who asked me “how retirement was treating me,” I smiled and said: “It’s pretty great.”
Of course, there was no retirement and now, more than a year later, I am still finding my way through the strange tableau of self-employment. I have turned down several jobs in the last year, but not ruled out taking a new one someday if the right opportunity presents itself or I grow weary of navigating self-employment tax rules. I teach a few classes each semester, have several small writing and editing contracts, as well as the occasional one-off weirdo project. I am writing most days. I am not writing some days. I am frequently still introduced by people in the context of my former job, as in “Julia used to be…” I can appreciate that is the easiest introduction to make, although each time I hear it I wonder how long it will take until I am no longer identified with a job I no longer have. I feel a slight pang that I try not to show, usually smile and say, “It’s true. That is what I used to do.”
A few weeks ago, the refrigerator broke. As he worked on it, the refrigerator repairman, over his shoulder, asked: “So what do you do?”
I found myself suddenly unable to speak. For years, I had had a quick answer to that question. For the past year, almost everyone I knew had an answer for that (“Julia used to be…”).
Finally, I said: “I don’t do anything.” The words hung in the air strangely. They weren’t even a little bit true, but saying them felt liberating.
“Yeah?” he said. “That sounds great.”
“It is,” I replied.
Julia Goldberg is a freelance writer and editor living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, whose work has appeared in a variety of regional and national publications, including Salon, In These Times, and AlterNet. She currently teaches writing at Santa Fe University of Art and Design, as well as Santa Fe Community College. You can find her on Twitter @votergirl.