I came down to the lake after I left my job and talked to the unemployment office on the cell phone. They said I was eligible for X dollars but just because you’re eligible doesn’t mean you’ll get it, you have to apply.
I was rearranging our garage with the bay doors open when the adjudicator called about my application. There was only so much space in the comment fields to explain the situation. Mine was weird because I hadn’t been fired but they’d given me a package; I’d left on my own terms. The adjudicator wanted to understand, had they changed the job expectations since I’d been hired? They had, but it was hard to prove. I felt damaged and disgusted. It came out in the draft I wrote, 50,000 words I printed on 3HP paper and put in a binder; I used blue painter’s tape and wrote on the spine “The Last 22 Years.”
I saved the draft to read for the first time on the plane to Germany when I went with our three pets in the hold. I got it in my head to go without my family, to move the pets there first, and minimize stress when the rest of us moved over that summer. When we landed in Frankfurt I went to baggage claim looking for the cages, hoping they’d be OK. I put them on a trolley and wheeled out in the terminal where I met my mom and Eberhard and we drove back to Besigheim.
I was planning to leave my job and after I did, a few weeks later, I got an email from a colleague who’d been let go. She told me the names of the others and I thought I would have been on that list, had I not left first.
Even though I was planning to leave it was hard to accept the fact they were happy to see me go. It wasn’t as much them as me I was upset with, how I’d put myself into the physical place of work, the people I’d come to know.
I watched others after layoffs wheeling out houseplants on Rubbermaid carts crying, and felt so bad for them (but better them, than me). It came through like a strange illness or lottery, how news about the layoffs was leaked and then the build-up to the day it was announced. I wrote about the scene after those who’d been let go had gone, when the rest of the group reassembles and looks around the circle to see who’s left. It’s like making the cuts on a varsity team, the locker room pep talk, the handing out of jerseys and numbers.
I thought how preposterous, to write a memoir: like what had I done that anyone would want to read about? And that felt even more preposterous, to think that way. I thought about the painters I admired and their simple, country scenes in dining rooms, the still lifes and self-portraits: banal subjects, but it was more how they saw things and learned how to express themselves that became the real subject, the story. And the fact I’d confused my identity with my job so much I’d lost track of myself and started to see life pass me by, how that was a universal theme.
The next draft I wrote in the UK last January; I tried third person and satire. I pulled out the best scenes and reworked them in May, then sat on it over the summer and tried more poetry and prose on my blog, playing with the stream of consciousness technique I liked in Joyce.
Like my friend Ross has said it’s true, story ideas have a shelf life. They also take time to develop. On my blog, I’ve launched stuff this past year I just tried lighting and throwing in the air, to see what it would do. But it becomes more the devotional act of doing it regularly that’s important to me, that’s more about the act than the product, how the product’s bound to get better the more you do it, when you tamp down the fear.
By the time we got to Galway we fell into some family funk where we doubted what we were doing and started to fight. From our apartment there was a light blinking out in the distance on the water that looked like it had a road going to it. I walked there one morning on a narrow causeway with the waves and the spray, so dim that time of year, hard to tell when the sun really comes up. It was a way’s out in the water to get to the blinking light, and when I got there it was just a waste disposal site on an island with a fence around it and razor wire, no access—and I thought about my story, and me in the middle of nowhere, and felt strong with what I had, and what I would be.