A Writer’s Inspiration

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January 15, 2013


I recently read an article about the author George Saunders in the New York Times magazine. His latest book of short stories, Tenth of December, was recommended as the best book you will read this year.

I enjoy reading about writers. I like to hear how they write and where their inspiration comes from. Although Saunders’ writing makes mine look inconsequential, there were several things he said that I connected with. He talked about a story he had been struggling with for a couple of years when he had an epiphany.

“I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything. It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home. You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored. Suddenly the universe was laden with moral import, and I could intensely feel the limits of my own power. We didn’t have the money, and I could see that in order for me to get this much money, I would have to work for this many more years. It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort-and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.”

cube photo

View from my cubicle

Aaah, there it was, what I just wrote about yesterday. The quote from C.S. Lewis, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one?” I too had struggled with working in a cubicle. I mean really struggled. By the third year, I was slowly losing my mind, headed for a nervous breakdown. My state of grace was eroding. I was full of negative feelings. I was bored, resentful, and unhappy. I felt I couldn’t control my destiny. I wasn’t fulfilled in my work. It was affecting my home life. I found it hard to be thankful for the things I did have, my family and my health. On a few of my final days in my cubicle, I found myself close to tears and had to take Xanax to get through the day, despite the fact I knew the end was in sight.

I would talk to some of my co-workers. I would ask “how have you done this for fifteen, twenty years?” I was in that cubicle for a total of only four years and it nearly broke me. The monotony of the work, the lack of sunlight, the minimal interaction with other people. I felt like I was a gerbil in a cage running around and around on one of those little wheels, getting nowhere. The cubicle was my cage and the wheel was the work I was doing. I wanted to scream “am I really supposed to do this for another ten or fifteen years?” The same thing over and over, month end, year end, the work never really completed, just recycling over and over and over again. My retirement savings would still be inadequate. My personal wealth wasn’t accumulating. What was I doing with my life?

My co-workers would say “but you have health insurance.” To me this seemed absurd. So I am working fifty weeks a year in a job I hate for the possibility of getting sick with cancer or having a stroke and having the insurance to pay the medical bills? But what about the days I am losing spending time unhappy in a cubicle? Aren’t they making me sick? Doesn’t stress lead to cancer? Isn’t sitting at a desk forty hours a week, fifty weeks a year bad for your health? Often I felt like I was the only one who saw it this way. Laid out in front of me were the endless boring, unfulfilled days until I got sick and would be able to use my health insurance. Yes, for me absurdism had become my reality.

Other people would say, “This is life. At least you have a job, look at all the unemployed people who would be happy to have a job.” My response was, ‘Yes, I do have a job. This is true. But shouldn’t there be some measure of satisfaction in the work you do? Or am I asking too much?’

Then I had an epiphany and started to write “The Reverse Commute”, a work of fiction that most likely will never compare to the intellectual scope of Saunders’ work. But it is my story nonetheless. And traveling around to book clubs these past few weeks, I have seen that people do connect to what I am saying. Not everyone can accept things the way they are and be content. It isn’t wrong to feel there has to be something more to life despite the fact I may not succeed. I have gotten a few royalty checks but I am still experiencing “an absence of wealth.” But I am pursuing this anyway, because I have to. I need to know I tried to live life my way.

The article ended with a quote from Saunders. I printed it out and am carrying it with me on my move to Florida. I am sure there will be days ahead when I ask “Did I do the right thing?” “How can I afford one more COBRA payment?” “Please let Obamacare work out in 2014.” “What was I thinking? I will never succeed at this.” Then I will reread Saunders’ words and remind myself anything is possible. But only if you try.

“Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”

2 thoughts on “A Writer’s Inspiration

  1. Sheila, I just finished your book and I have to tell you I absolutely loved it! I couldn’t put it down. I hope you remember me, Janice from Order Entry. I am so happy for you and can’t wait for your next novel. I also love reading and just got a Kindle. I have to say I was devastated when I was fired from my boring cubicle job. I was so embarrassed and scared of what would happen to me now. But my life went on and I’ve had a wonderful six months visiting with my kids and grandkids back home in Chicago. Also we have recently decided to sell our house here in Gloucester and move to south Florida. So I am starting a new chapter in my life. Thank you so much for the memories from work and I wish you all the best in your new career. I’ ‘ll be following your blog. Maybe we’ll bump into each other in Florida!


    • Thanks so much Janice. Your post brought tears to my eyes. I was so happy to hear you were moved by my story and hope it helped in some way. Good luck on your new chapter in life. Mine is off to a great start and I hope yours will be too!


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