Friday, September 01, 2006

It's not brain surgery

Back in July 2002, my company relocated us from Boston to New York (us as in the Children's Division, Bulfinch Press, International, and Production--42 positions in all). Leading up to the move and afterwards as well we were neck-deep in work and behind all of our schedules because of the move and all that entailed: time off for people to search for apartments, for the actual move, distraction because of all the changes, trying to figure out procedures and who had already done what, because whole departments had to be replaced (of the 42 positions affected, only 12 people made the move) and new people trained. Our submissions piles were sorely overlooked, we were acquiring very few new books, and we all just wanted to make sure that the books that were already on our list were published, and published well.

And then suddenly in the Fall we were down two more people and books were reassigned, even though we were all already overworked. That was a truly stressful time. The first 9 months of moving to NY was a nightmare in terms of work. I would work till 7 or 8 every day (leaving only because I had a significant other waiting at home waiting for me for dinner), would bring work home for me, read manuscripts in bed every night, pile them up under my dusty bed, go into the office almost every weekend. There was a period of a few months that I honestly wondered if I could stay in this job that I had normally loved. And I knew that I had it better than most. My consultant friends and lawyer friends working 60-80 hour weeks, but then again, they were getting paid literally 3 or 4 times as much as I was. I knew I was getting somewhere in my career, but it was all just getting me down. Our concerned and well-meaning HR manager would walk around asking us if we were okay, but we were all so busy that we didn't even want to stop for a moment to answer the question. One day she stopped by my cubicle and asked how I was doing and I just looked at her in a wild, frenzied, "I'm about to cry" way and she said, "Well, remember--it's not brain surgery. Nobody's going to die."

Now, I know she meant well by saying this, but it was the absolute last thing I wanted to hear. I felt that she was denigrading my job, telling me it wasn't important, that nobody would die if I didn't do it. My job WAS important, because so many people's dreams and livelihoods were at stake here. And it was important for me to do a good job, because that's all I knew, that was how I was raised. I hated her at that moment.

But the funny thing is, I say that sentence to myself all the time now. It's not brain surgery. It makes me stress less. (And it made me feel sorry for the real brain surgeons out there.) Nobody is going to die if I don't read this manuscript tonight. Everything can be done tomorrow. Sure, I still get stressed, I still feel guilty if I don't meet my deadlines, I feel bad if I keep an author waiting, or if an agent sends me a snippy email. My job is such a huge, important part of my life, and I feel so blessed to be doing what I do, but it's not worth killing myself over, sacrificing my personal relationships for.

And things got better. I was able to go to my boss and say, "I need to talk to you about my workload" and that was all I needed to say--she knew right away, she was probably wondering what took me so long to complain. "I know. I'm so sorry. We're working on it, we're hiring a new person soon, it will get better." and it did. My new boss now says things like "I don't know how you do all that you do! We need to watch out for signs of burnout with you." When I told my fellow editors from other houses this, they all looked at me, jaws dropped. "I would cry with happiness if my boss said that to me," one said. "Just knowing that she knew what I was going through would make all the difference."

And it does. I know I'm lucky working where I am, doing what I do with the people I work with. I think it every day.


Meghan McCarthy said...

I love hearing about the other side! Sometimes I forget that LB moved. It sounded terrible!

Honestly though, I hate when people say things like "It's not brain surgery." My mom always says things like that. She means well but sometimes all you need to hear is "That sucks. Hang in there." When my car got demolished my mom said "It could be worse. You could have cancer." Yes! That's true! But sometimes that's not what you need to hear. Things CAN always be worse but it's your reality...

Thanks for sharing, Alvina.


alvinaling said...

Yeah, it's funny, I was thinking the other day about this column I read once when I was a kid, I think it was Ann Landers or Dear Abby or something like that, and in response to the letter writer, the columnist said something like: Saying that someone doesn't have it bad just because someone has it worse doesn't make sense, it's like telling the paraplegic that the quadriplegic has it worse. Sure, someone always has it worse, but that doesn't mean that your problems, your issues aren't valid. Anyway, I do think that it's good to keep things in perspective, because the reality is, we could be dead! And it's good to be alive! But each individual has their valid problems and life.

Libby Koponen said...

Thanks for sharing, both of you! I never knew it was that bad when you moved, Alvina! And Meghan, it's nice to know that my mother isn't the only one to respond to bad news with cheery phrases, especially annoying when the cheery phrase completely denies reality (eg when I didn't have a job and didn't see how I was going to pay the rent etc. "Don't worry so much about money" - in a way, it was good advice, the worrying didn't help, but it also didn't help me to be told not to worry!). When I'm upset about something the last thing I want to be told not to feel the way I do --and telilng me that that things could be worse isn't likely to make me feel better, either. Of course, they could be worse! But life isn't a misery contest. When I'm whinig all I want is for someone to understand how I feel. I don't want to be consoled, or told what I SHOULD do. These things by the way were and are high on my list of things I would never do to ny own children if I had any! And if I ever say them to anyONE, that person has my permission to remind me of all this.

Agyw said...

It is amazing sometimes, no matter the situation that we get through times of great stress only to look back and wonder "HOW?!" I'm glad you survived the move Alvina, and hoping NY suits you.

I don't know if any of you guys are moms, but it is a different perspective. I find myself saying and doing things I said I NEVER would. And saying and doing things I didn't KNOW or dream possible. Perspective is THE word. I think people try to GIVE that to someone else, not realizing Perspective is really something we give ourselves, sometimes hard won, at that.

I had a very, very rough patch as a kid. The only person that helped me at that time, taught me something about myself and a skill. I hadn't realized how strong my inner dialogue was at that point, though I walk around talking to myself. I especially would ask myself stuff, like "Why did I do that-- THAT WAS STUPID!"), she taught me how to ask the kinder, deeper questions. Basically how to be kinder to myself.

I think that's where that need comes from. But here's a thought. Though at the TIME you may have wanted the validation, having a new inner dialogue in your internal arsenal, may have been actually more valuable.

My favorite is when I did something stupid or painful or WRONG, and the dialogue became "did you learn something?" Thank you for the sneak peek at one editor's situation.

Grace Lin said...

ah, try actually living with a cancer patient. There's some tough love for you...the sympathy for sore feet and long work hours is not exactly overwhelming...