The Sense of the Story: Revisiting My Layoff One Year Later

In November 2017, I learned that my faculty position at St. Louis Community College would be one of 58 eliminated in a reduction in force. One year later, I sat with Michaella A. Thornton at Hartford Coffee in south St. Louis to talk about how we had each experienced, processed, and reckoned with the layoff for an article she was writing. “Pink Slips: How Layoffs Create Double Jeopardy for Working Mothers” was published in The Common Reader this January.

I had talked and written about the layoff before, but my conversation with Michaella stayed with me. She had invited me to describe my layoff experience, of which she had her own version, because we had seen it from different campuses. In doing so, I felt something beyond the relief of sharing the moment we each received the news, how we had coped and failed to cope, and how we were still grieving even a year later. Even beyond the bolstering camaraderie of cheering each other’s new full-time writing careers. For the first time, I was telling my story as a story. I started at the beginning and eventually came to the end. I experienced what Rachael Freed describes as telling our stories “to transform ourselves” and “transcend [our experiences].”

Seeing my experience within Michaella’s published article transformed it in another way—making it part of a larger narrative, a widespread problem rooted in stereotypical gender roles, decades of earnings inequality, and simple sexism. My layoff was not just something that happened to me which I needed to handle alone. In “Pinkslips,” it became part of other people’s stories and the intellectual work being done to address these systemic problems.

Back in December 2017, as I looked ahead to my final semester and the sabbatical plan that would never be fulfilled, I tried to embrace the spirit of Advent, which is to say I tried to get comfortable with waiting and listening for instructions. After a career spent solving problems and executing tasks, it felt impossible to sit still, let alone believe waiting could count for some kind of action. In that waiting, however, the story began to tell itself to me, with both a sense of largeness and as a single event in my life.

The story began with grieving the job loss and entering a new career in freelance writing, with a lot of false starts, bad gigs, ignorance, naiveté, anxiety, and overfunctioning. The story was finally acknowledging my teaching burnout, discerning that my next move would not be applying for another faculty position and setting down my identity as a teacher. The story was also that my new, exciting, and flexible freelance work would never have come about without the layoff. Because despite the many difficulties and dysfunctions at my college, I had had no concept of any other career. After 14 years as a writing instructor, it was perhaps both a good and bad sign that I was bereft of this kind of imagination. The story is slowly embracing gratitude, even for the anger, uncertainty, and upheaval.

The very evening after my breakfast with Michaella, I received a message from a difficult client, with whom I had signed a vague, open-ended agreement back in May for what should have been a three-week job. This was before I learned how to structure contracts with clear boundaries and a scope of work, and collaborations with this client had grown tense and progress was stalling. That night, the client emailed to inform me they were going in a different direction with the project and that my services were no longer needed. I had never been so happy to be fired in my life. This—albeit smaller—termination’s loss and gain came into perspective quickly. New beginnings revealed themselves in freed up time and mental energy to secure better fitting jobs (with my revised contract).

Freelance work passes in a blink compared to teaching a semester-long course. Seeing my work end so quickly and so frequently is an aid to storytelling. Every ending calls for revisiting the beginning, for incorporating the latest chapter into the rest of the story and using it to approach the future. In this way, I think about the whole story much more.

My career now feels like it is both mine and not. I know now how it can, in a sense, be taken from me any time. Somehow, when the end looms always so near, it no longer haunts. It does not diminish the work or the present moment. Rather, it reminds me that the story is the life of a job, the life after, the life all around.