On Professional Decline

A gerontologist friend recommended the Atlantic article by Arthur C. Brooks on professional decline after 50 on the social media thingy the other day. I skimmed through it and responded, “Wow, I’m ahead of the curve; my professional decline started a long time ago!”

This is flip, but true enough. I am on, basically, my third career. After college and law school, I started off as a “junior politician,” working on the Dallas staff of then-Senator Phil Gramm as an underpaid and overworked “caseworker”. I was on the Senate staff, not the campaign staff, and missed out on his disastrous 1996 Presidential campaign. I jumped ship and worked for Governor George W. Bush, staying on through his successful 2000 presidential campaign. I wasn’t able to latch on with the White House staff, though, and wasn’t able to make any headway getting any other role with that Administration.

So I ended up reinventing myself as an attorney. In the Governor’s office, I was working on disability issues, and I got a job at Georgia Tech with the regional ADA center for the Southeast. That led to a job as an attorney with Disability Rights New Jersey in Trenton, where I represented clients with disabilities in a variety of different cases. I had a secondary role managing the state assistive technology program. I did that for eleven years, until I was heartily sick of it.

I don’t want to go too much into why I left my last job, but what happened was that the Medicaid program in New Jersey got handed over to private insurance. That meant that it was in the interest of the private insurance companies to cut back on individual services — and every time they did that, they would send out a letter telling the patients that my office would represent them in administrative law court for free. Which we did.

The upshot of all this was that I was spending a great deal of time arguing with first-year lawyers over whether little old ladies in New Jersey should get 10 hours of home health care benefits per week, or 8. This is — without meaning any disrespect to the little old ladies involved — not the stuff that great legal careers are built on. Around the same time, I was up for a promotion, and didn’t get it — and the lawyer who did get it was an advocate of taking on a lot more of these cases. This meant that I would be spending the rest of my career wrangling over the details of the bowel movements of little old ladies, and how much Medicaid assistance that required. (You want to talk about career decline, that was pretty much it.)

I went to look for other work, and found out that I had painted myself into a corner. There just weren’t that many firms that were interested in hiring someone whose specialty was representing indigent clients in administrative law court. And I couldn’t support myself as a solo practitioner handling those kind of claims. I interviewed with several firms where I could have made a lateral move — guardianship cases, special education, medical malpractice — but none of them were a good fit. I had bottomed out at age 48, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it.

I ended up going in a completely different direction. I left my job and enrolled in a master’s program in human resources at Rutgers. I have a very challenging job working for a small human services agency. It is anything but a glamorous role; I do a lot of paperwork and handle a lot of compliance issues. I am never going to get elected to Congress, or work in the White House, or argue before the Supreme Court, and that is fine.

I take a lot of comfort from this Pat Green song, about a hard-luck country singer:

I gave up on Nashville a long time ago.

Damn straight.

So I have, at age 50, become comfortable with the idea of professional decline. I am not exactly thrilled about it. I like to think that I can find a better job, doing something more responsible, perhaps using my law degree. But those opportunities haven’t opened up for me, yet, and maybe they won’t. It doesn’t bother me, or I try not to let it bother me, which is not the same thing.

Professional Decline and Publishing

What does bother me, though, is not professional decline in my career, although that is bad enough. What bothers me is what it means for me as a novelist.

I’ve written and self-published two novels; one in 2013 and one in 2014. Neither were particularly successful, even for self-published works. (I’ve also published an alphabet picture book, which flopped even worse, and had a political short-story collection published by a small press.) I finished my third novel just last year, and I have been querying agents on it over the last month or two.

I’ve had much less success than usual — even though I didn’t get an agent for the last two books, I used to get some kind of response. Maybe it was just asking to look at the rest of the manuscript. Now all I am getting is form rejection letters. And what I am asking myself, from an HR standpoint, is this: if I’ve really hit my creative decline at age 50, does this mean I’m wasting my time?

I’m starting to think so.

  • There is of course the good old self-publishing stigma, which isn’t (supposedly) what it once was, but only a fool would say it isn’t still there.
  • I write kind of slow. Three novels in seven years isn’t going to get anyone excited about representing me, and I get that.
  • I don’t write series, which hurts you a lot in self-pub and doesn’t help with anything else.
  • I write in different genres. I went from literary fiction to chick-lit to YA fantasy. I have no explanation for this; it’s just what I decided to write about.
  • I am old. It is tough to write YA when you’re old.
  • I am an attorney, and attorneys are famously cranky, and twitchy about contract elements.
  • I don’t have any kind of social media audience to speak of.
  • I am not only old, but old and non-telegenic, and a white male Republican in the bargain. (Every single agent, in every single profile, coos about how much they want diverse voices. This is partly to keep them from being eaten alive by the Twitter mobs, which is fine. This is partly because they see value in diversity, which is also fine. And none of this, y’know, is keeping me from getting published, but it sure ain’t helping me none.)

There is a name for everything I just did in that last bullet list, and that name is whining. I know that. (I spend half my life telling my 10-year-old twins to stop whining; I know it when I hear it.) And you shouldn’t whine. But it’s one thing to whine about gatekeepers, and another thing to realize that, you know, maybe there are perfectly reasonable decline-related concerns that an agent might have with respect to an aging and slightly doddering potential client.

So This Is What I Am Going To Do

I’m not querying anymore. Not on this project, probably not on any future ones. (I am still waiting on several responses from agents that I have queried; I’m assuming that they will reject me — although I’m open to discussion if they’re somehow, inexplicably interested.)

I’m going to start looking for a cover artist for the book. I’m going to slap a high-quality cover on it and put it on Amazon, and see how well it does. If it sells well, great, if not, great. I’m not going to worry about it one way or another. (This last sentence is a lie, but I’m going to try anyway.)

I am going to start actively managing my decline — my physical decline, if nothing else. I am going to try to eat better, and exercise, and lose weight — if only to set myself up for an enjoyable retirement. I am going to keep working — at least for a while — to save money for said retirement. I am going to cultivate my family relationships, and maybe seek out ways to serve in my community.

But I’m not going to slink into the forest gladly or gracefully. Decline, as Arthur C. Brooks ought to be able to tell you, is a choice. Senescence and death may be inevitable, but that’s not what we were made for. Rage, rage against the dying of the light, Dylan Thomas said.

Damn straight.