Everybody Gets Laid Off

My boss at my company, a really warm and kind-hearted person who has always been hugely supportive of my writing, called me in for a meeting Friday morning. I was supposed to brief him on the new video game I was designing.

I was doing all the writing, which wasn’t unusual, and all the coding, too, which was: I wasn’t just coming up with characters and art ideas and the lines that everyone was saying, but I was also writing the code for when a character appears on screen or disappears or rages out or casts a spell. I was feeling pretty proud of myself, and all that tech stuff was a lot to hold inside my head, and I was doing (if I do say so myself) a reasonably good job of it.

So it was not entirely expected when I sat down with all my flowcharts and hand notations — weirdly, the more technical a writing project gets, the more often I like to write on paper — and my boss was rubbing his eyes over and over again and saying something that had nothing at all to do with the game, which was that, as of June 30, I and a whole bunch of other people would no longer be working for the company.

It took me a while to realize what was going on. Like, several sentences. And by the time it sunk in, neither the smart-alec part of my brain (which would have said something like “Wow, on my birthday! I’ve never gotten a present like that before”), nor the glib always-positive part (“At least I didn’t get fired“), nor the grim, factual part that handles math and money and the necessities of life (“Um, my healthcare is going to cost nearly as much as I get paid, and by the way I’m no longer getting paid?”) could manage to say anything out loud.

All I said was, “So you don’t want to know what happens at the end of the level?”

***

Working for somebody else is a strange, intense sensation. Working for yourself is also strange and intense, but in a totally different way. For the past few years I took on another person’s mandate, a set of rules and objectives that were not necessarily my own. In meetings, I’d shoot down ideas that I thought were incredibly smart or hilarious or inventive because — the doomsayer of creatives everywhere — “Is it right for our target audience?” I’d ask.

I don’t regret a moment of it. I came of age doing things independently, selling CDs for $5 at poetry slams and writing books that didn’t really fall into “genres” as we know them. I wrote my first novel, Never Mind the Goldbergs, which I thought was an adult book but ended up getting published as a teen book and then got some angry letters from people who thought it shouldn’t be either one. And I made G-dcast, a video series which we’d originally conceived as Torah portions retold for people who don’t know or don’t care about the Torah, and now it’s found a weirdly successful afterlife in Hebrew school curricula.

And then I was brought onto this project. Educational video games. Video games for kids who don’t want to do anything educational.

***

And yes, I loved my job, and yes, I do still completely believe in our work. But it’s a weird sort of believing in: where I’m not trying to tell my story; I’m trying to tell a story that I think our audience needs and wants to hear. So when I see that sly insider joke about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that sends my morning coffee snorting up through my nostrils, I ask myself if there’s any way to make it subtler, so the player doesn’t need to have read the book in order to understand. Nope? Then strike it from the game.

I felt good. I felt like an avenging angel, the same sureness I feel when I pray (and almost no other time aside from that): where I’m speaking the words of somebody else, not my own words, but somebody I 100% trust. It’s good to think, Rabban Gamliel said this, so I don’t have to worry about my ego getting in the way and saying something wrong and messing it all up.

Then something like a layoff happens, and all I can think is, did I put my trust in the wrong person? Was I not watching the road? Who was in the driver’s seat all this time, anyway?

My metaphors are imperfect, and I really don’t want to go down the road of comparing my corporation to G-d anyway. But right now I know is one of those times where I have to remind myself that, although I think my company is behind it, it’s really all G-d. G-d laid me off. G-d thinks that laying me off is where I need to be right now. G-d’s going to make sure that I get another job before my family goes hungry, or before I go crazy and start writing silly stories that don’t make anyone laugh at all.

***

Faith is tossing me in the air and landing me somewhere between Nachshon ben Aminadav, who walked into the Red Sea up to his chin before G-d finally parted it, and that guy in the flood from that old Hasidic story, where he keeps saying “G-d will save me!” and refuses to get aboard a wagon and a boat and a helicopter. He dies, and he asks G-d, “Why didn’t You save me?” and G-d replies, “What are you talking about? I sent you a wagon and a boat and a helicopter!”

I’m taking deep breaths. I’m keeping my friends close and my anxiety meds closer. And I’m staying up till crazy hours sending out resumes and working on my pilot script.

People have asked me for advice about finding a publisher for their book, or finding a magazine for their short story. It’s one of those questions that, as an author, you never really discover an answer to. (It’s also one of those questions that, with a few books published and a few other books that never did, I find myself asking other people.) Here’s as much wisdom as I’ve ever been able to squeeze out of it:

Looking for a publisher is like dating for marriage. The first publisher you meet might sweep you up. It might not happen till the thousandth publisher. You just have to go through the steps of submitting to the first nine hundred and ninety-nine publishers, the ones who don’t want you, until you get to the one publisher who is your absolute soulmate. (You non-writers are laughing. You writers are like, yep, they are your soulmate.)

A few months from now, G-d willing, I’ll be laughing at this post, either from a new cubicle or a chaise-lounge on a nearly-deserted beach with my laptop next to an unpronounceable tropical cocktail. I’ll feel ashamed that I was so worried, and amused that G-d threw me on such a roller coaster. But until it comes, well — I’ll keep my friends on speed dial, my Xanax in my breast pocket, and my prayerbook open.