February 1st, 2012 / 10:31 am

How to be unemployed

About 1.5 months ago you realized that you had to quit your job. You had been excited about the job — it seemed like a good fit, and for the first time in your life you were making enough money that you didn’t have to worry. But it wasn’t a good fit, for a lot of reasons that we won’t go into now. (It seemed designed to stress you out. It was the first job you’ve ever not enjoyed.) For the purposes of this post, “you” are me. So here is what you do.

1. Look for work. Constantly. Write and rewrite your cover letters. Despair on days where no suitable openings appear on the job sites. You are limited to one small city because that’s where your wife works and your wife has a good job, so you’re not going anywhere for probably a long time. Your next job is somewhere in this city.

2. Write that novel. The one about super heroes. Double its considerable length in your first month of unemployment. You don’t write that much more on a day-by-day basis when you’re out of work (you average 1,000-1,200 words, rather than 700-1,000) but it adds up fast. Think about what you will write when the novel is over. It will have to be short stories. This is novel #7, it’s time to get published (this one, and/or #6) or admit that it’s not going to happen.

3. But it has to happen.

4. Take up hobbies and abandon them, quickly. You’re not really going to make most of the things you want to make. Imagine how much you could get done with this time. Look for collaborators. Artists, other writers, anything that could enrich your nearly constant stream of output in some way, such that someone else would ever want to look at it.

5. Think about things you would buy if you were making money again.

6. Look for work. You can apply to teach online. You can apply for freelance work.

7. No one e-mails you back about anything. If a job isn’t interested then you never hear from them again. If a person doesn’t want to talk to you then they won’t. Do your best not to let this affect your sense of self worth.

8. You can have the TV playing in the background if you want but avoid playing video games while your wife is at work. It will only depress you. This is a time to be productive, to reinvent yourself, to learn new things, to carefully read all the listings on Careerbuilder and Higheredjobs.com.

9. Have ideas for businesses or remember your old ideas. Enjoy the ideas while you are out walking for exercise. Probably don’t act on them or anything. You aren’t a business guy.

10. Check constantly for news on the books you have submitted to various publishers, especially the ones you paid to read your book. When you get a reply, when you can see the book’s title in the subject line, do not let yourself feel that initial surge of excitement or forget to breathe or experience the slightest glimmer of hope, because it won’t turn out to be anything, except possibly a mounting consensus that someone should publish this book. (Just not anyone who gets back to you.)

11. Start posting to a litblog. Confuse and alienate large segments of the audience with schoolmarmish posts about design and spilling coffee on books. Think carefully about how to namedrop said litblog in the cover letters for your novel, as if to say, “I have been accepted by someone, somewhere, so perhaps you will accept me too.”

12. Clean the kitchen often. Do the first two steps in recipes before your wife gets home. Pick up in the living room. Take out the trash. Do the dishes. Don’t let your wife do these things. Imagine yourself as the ideal 1950s housewife. (Picture yourself in an apron.) Do your best to feel useful.

13. When something doesn’t work out, sulk for days. (Don’t do this.) (Don’t.)

14. Learn something new as often as you can, keeping in mind the natural tendency of human capital to degrade. Sign up for a programming class at a new free online university. This won’t start until Feb. 20 so for now you’ve got to do something else. Go to Khan Academy. Teach yourself math. Learn it properly this time. Do the practice problems until you get them right. Earn “energy points” and badges. Ask yourself if there’s any possible way to mention “mastered math using Khan Academy” on your resume that doesn’t make you sound like a moron. Probably not.

15. Work for the small press you work for. Work for your own magazine. Do not resent the former because it doesn’t pay, or the latter because in fact you pay for it yourself. Imagine that your service to literature is imbalancing your karma such that publication for your (really excellent (you tell yourself)) novel will become inevitable in time. (But it doesn’t work that way.) (And it shouldn’t.)

16. Look for work. Take a typing test. Consider different fields.

17. Spend entire days feeling totally doomed. On these days, you may allow yourself a nap, but only one, and only briefly.

18. Spend as much time as you can trying to make your wife’s life better. Don’t thank her too often for loving you, for taking care of you.

19. Remember that you did need to quit the job. Regret it anyway.

20. Look for work. Do not read bad news about the economy. Read the good news. Believe that things will get better.

21. Try not to whine in public too often. Despairing posts on Facebook can be managed such that appropriate people see them and inappropriate people do not. Twitter has no such options. Just so you know.

22. Try online freelance sites. These are basically always scams. No human being will ever consent to pay another human being a decent wage for short-term work, we are collectively participating in the devaluation of our own labor, the most common form of employment on Odesk.com is rewriting an article or a blog post or pornography sufficiently to provide plausible deniability for charges of plagiarism. The pornography will be bundled and sold on Amazon. The blog posts will be SEO’d up the ass and posted to fifty identical websites.

23. Look for work.

24. Consider the possibilities of self-publishing. Don’t ever actually do it. You Aren’t That Desperate Yet.

25. Look for work.

26. One of your superhero novel characters has the power to move forward in time when she closes her eyes. You want to close your eyes and move forward to the time where you have a job again. But when she closes her eyes she never changes. It’s only the rest of the world. One of your MFA friends tweets that he wishes it were possible to die until the economy improves and then come back to life. It makes a lot of sense to you.

27. Read everything that you always meant to read. (As long as it’s at the library and therefore free.) (Spending money makes you feel like someday you will die.) (Which, well, maybe so.) (Maybe so.)

28. Look for work.

29. Look for work.

30. Try.


  1. Helen

      Ah yes, the bitter tears of recognition. I am good at being unemployed, it turns out. Before the crash I could fall into the small jobs I wanted to sustain the writing. Now, no one wants me to sell coffee, cheese, whisky for them. Number 22. Yes. the fragrance of work, really just like those cookie-scented sprays you used to be able to buy to fragrance your house with longing unfilled. But I try. I am good at trying, too.

  2. A D Jameson

      1000–1200 finished words/day is stellar output, work or no work. (I once calculated that, when I write fiction, I average 240 finished words/hour.)

      Good luck with the job search, Mike!

  3. A D Jameson

      Oh and: you was a stormtrooper?

  4. Mike Meginnis

      Yes, I’ve never struggled to write. I average one book for every 1.5 years (except during my time at the MFA). It’s the stuff you do after the writing that I find difficult. And thanks.

  5. Mike Meginnis

      Of course!

  6. leapsloth14

      Novel #7? Damn. Impressive.

  7. Anonymous

      It sounds like you’re doing a great job of taking advantage of being out of work.  Great post, good luck.

  8. A D Jameson

      Agreement. (We should exchange unpublished novels sometime!)

  9. Mike Meginnis

      Whenever you want. And, I owe  you an e-mail, will send it shortly.

  10. Anonymous

      22. yeah, most are scams but a few aren’t. none are really a ‘job’ but they can get you through the worst parts sometimes. good luck!

  11. Alexis Orgera

      I just quit my job, too. 

  12. Scott McClanahan

      I really like this.

  13. lorian long


  14. deadgod

      26.  Unemployment is a bit like suspended animation, but a lot like being a consuming-but-not-inwardly-changing zombie.  That might make a cool story . . .

      27.  Can’t agree enough:  reading is (almost) never a waste of time.  You’ve read all of Shakespeare’s plays? Rabelais? and so on.  Happily, tremendous pleasure.  Sadly, (almost always) unpaid.

      1., 6., 16., 20., 23., 25., 28., 29.  You are alone, but, at the same time, your experiences are common and, here and many places, there is amity.  You’re alone and together — “try” hard to be fair with yourself.

      You didn’t mention:  x.  Tweet snarky tweets about your difficulties with reading on the internet.  –ha ha ha

  15. Anonymous

      re 10. What is the function of publishers that you pay to see a book? I recall hearing of a press of some kind that provides reviews for pay, though not necessarily good reviews (seems like I should know its name). Is it that kind of thing? Or just publishers with reading/submission fees?

  16. Mike Meginnis

      Yeah, I just meant paying submission fees. I don’t love doing it but I’m not as up in arms about it as I have been in the past.

  17. Nick Mamatas

      Your first mistake was looking for work.

  18. Spenser Davis

      And don’t work at Barnes & Noble. It will depress you that nobody buys the novels you like. They buy shitty romance and shitty mystery and anything in the bargain section. 

      But if someone does ask for a recommendation, you can view it as a chance to redeem literature in the eyes of the public. Or as your own personal vengeance against the James Patterson-led masses. 

  19. postitbreakup

      don’t forget (at least at the one where I worked) a lot of shitty right-wing political manifestos

  20. htmlgiant: “disrupting the learning of writing” | botolph's

      […] just wanted to point folks in the direction of that post. [Note: Meginnis also wrote the fantastic "How to be unemployed."] share:Share on Tumblr This entry was posted in Writing and tagged Academia, Autodidacticism, […]

  21. Spenser Davis

      really just a lot of shitty political manifestos from every end of the spectrum

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