Tag Archives: writing

Thoughts from an empty office

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The author, on the day he was hired for his first mortgage job

I am sitting in my office right now. My desk is bare, only my laptop, my monitors, my phone, and a pineapple coffee mug full of ink pens left. I’ve taken most of my decorations down. Pictures of friends and family have been taken home. The mug my best friend’s daughter bought me for Christmas is packed away. Posters and prints and a Charlie Brown Christmas tree lean against a wall—the last remaining indication that this corner office in this old bank-cum-office-building was once occupied by Skylar Baker-Jordan.

I only worked here for just over a year. I started in June 2018. I will leave in September 2019. It’s the first time I’ve had my own office since I was Student Body Vice President in college. When I had that office—a small, cinderblock cell with fluorescent lights and cheap tile on top of concrete, I thought having an office like I have now—spacious, possibly the biggest in the building—would be a sure sign that I had made it. That I was successful.

I never imagined having an office like this would make me feel trapped.

As most of you know already, I am leaving North Carolina, a state I’ve only called home for 18 months. I put in my resignation at work two days ago after calling my grandparents and confirming that yes, as we discussed, I can move in with them in Tennessee. I’m going to apply for graduate school, try to make some money writing, and cross my fingers that I can figure out a way to find a career that brings me more joy than grief, which is a lot more than I can say for the mortgage industry.

I was never meant to be in mortgages. I moved to Chicago in the summer of 2011 and started applying for any and every job I could find. Six weeks later, I had an interview at Guaranteed Rate, at the time billed as America’s fastest growing mortgage company. I thought it was for a position as a receptionist. I was 25, though probably as naïve as a 20-year-old, fresh from Kentucky and a very dark period in my life. I put on a tan suit jacket, pastel pink dress shirt, and teal tie—all of which I had picked up at a thrift store the week before the interview. I went over to my friend Sara’s apartment to print off my resume, which took longer than expected. Her then-boyfriend sped through the North Side so that I wouldn’t have to take the train (I couldn’t afford a cab). He dropped me off outside this giant brick warehouse which had been reclaimed as a loft-style office space.

It was cold inside, both in temperature and décor. I waited for a nice young woman—no older than me—from human resources to interview me. She explained that it wasn’t a receptionist position, but an interview to be either a sales assistant or an underwriting assistant. Which would I prefer? I had no idea what either of those things meant, but I knew I didn’t want to do anything with sales, and underwriting at least had the word writing in it, so I picked that. Later, a matronly middle-aged woman with a nasally Chicago accent interviewed me. She would later tell me she knew she would hire me the moment she saw me because of my outfit. I stood out, I was bold, and I was charming. I got the job.

That was eight years ago. This was all supposed to be temporary. But over the past eight years I have, but for one nine month exception when I actually launched my writing career, been employed in mortgages. I have risen from an underwriting assistant to a senior, seasoned processor. My loan-level knowledge is, if I do say so myself, profound. Ask me about FHA guidelines, or what Fannie will allow but Freddie won’t. I’m good.

I’m also desperately unhappy.

The only reason I stayed in mortgages as long as I did was because I lived in Chicago and didn’t want to leave. Even though Chicago itself brought me a lot of misery, I relished being in such a cultured and exciting place, and I loved my friends. But there was something else keeping me there, too—the fear of flunking out of the big city. I am a small-town boy from the hills of eastern Kentucky. There’s literally a song about how you never leave there alive. But I did. And my biggest fear was having to go back.

So I stayed in the mortgage industry so I could stay in Chicago. I didn’t want to leave. Leaving meant failure. I didn’t want to be a failure. Finding a writing job was hard, and I could never manage to save enough money to step out on faith and freelance full time. So I kept doing mortgages.

By the end of 2017, though, it became clear to me that I was not going to be happy staying in mortgages and that, at 31, the time had come to shit or get off the pot. I had a choice—try to make it as a writer, or embrace this career I had tripped into quite by accident which I loathed but which I was good and pays pretty well. It’s a choice a lot of us face: excitement or stability.

In 2011 I chose stability. I had been in college on and off for six years, finally graduating in 2010. I was working at a café, living with roommates in an apartment two doors down from my college campus, and dating a closeted fraternity boy. I was stunted. So when I left Chicago, I wanted to make it as a writer, but I also wanted to have a fucking income. My own apartment. A trip to London. A dog.

I got all but the dog. I have two cats instead. Don’t ask.

By 2017, I began to realize I had made the wrong choice. What I should have done when I left Kentucky is go to grad school, get my MFA, and figure out a plan from there. I didn’t do that. Instead I helped rich people buy their third house. For a socialist who believes property is theft, that felt like shit. For a Millennial who thinks healthcare is nice to have, it felt good.

For professional reasons I won’t go into here, by December 2017 it became clear that my job would no longer exist in six months. My boss and I sat down at an Irish pub across from our office that Christmastime and began discussing what we would both do next. He wanted to go to Guaranteed Rate, the company that had first hired but which had laid me off years before and from which I came to work for him. I wanted to be a writer. And so, we decided, that was what we would do.

And then my 16-year-old brother got hit by a bus. And he almost died. Moving to North Carolina was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. He needed me. Our mom needed me. Suddenly, leaving Chicago didn’t feel like failure. It felt like the only right choice. And so, I moved.

I stayed first at the Ronald McDonald House while my brother was still in hospital. When he was released, I stayed with my maternal grandmother. 1 June 2018 I moved into my loft apartment in downtown Jacksonville—a drab military town a few miles inland from the Atlantic. On 4 June of that year I started at my current job, deciding to stay in mortgages because the upheaval of moving and my brother’s accident was enough change for one year. Switching careers at that time seemed not only overwhelming, but also impractical. I was living life in a new town, and I needed to make money and connections quickly. So, here I am.

But over the past year or so, I have also found myself more unhappy and, frankly, more lonely than I have ever been. Processing mortgages in Jacksonville, North Carolina is not the life I want. It is not enough for me. It is not fulfilling. This is not a criticism of anybody for whom it is enough, or who likes this town, or who likes this industry. For some people, this is exciting stuff. For others, the money makes it worth the sacrifices and stress. But not for me.

Shortly after I moved here, I began rereading my high school journal. How hopeful I was. How eager. How I thought everything would be so easy. Seeing how 17-year-old Skylar though this life would turn out compared to how it actually had made me sad, but also angry. How had I wasted so much time? What did I have to show for my twenties except debt and a string of loser ex-boyfriends?

I started to think about what I want my life to be. I’m 33. I’m unmarried. I don’t have kids. The things people usually take comfort in when they realize their childhood dreams haven’t come true are not things I have. I come home to two ungrateful cats and a bottle of Jack Daniels. That’s it.

So I knew I had to make a change, and it was at that point I decided to go to graduate school. I wasn’t ready for the fall of 2019—I didn’t know how much my brother might still need, and I wasn’t sure I had enough money in the bank. So I decided to apply for fall 2020.

My brother has made almost a full recovery. He starts college himself this fall. In talking with my friends and family, I came to the conclusion that since he’s leaving, there is no reason for me to stay here in a town I don’t like and a career I don’t want. This job is stressful—more stressful than I can articulate. And frankly, it paid well enough in Chicago, but the pay here is shit. So, the decision was made to leave.

(I’ll talk more about how that decision was made at a later date, because it’s an interesting story. But it’s not one for now.)

I’ve spent eight years in an industry I hate because I was concerned about giving up the trappings of middle-class life, about being seen as a failure, and frankly, about failing. I’m terrified I won’t get into graduate school. I’m petrified I’ll never make it as a writer. I’m nervous about giving up my immediate financial independence and moving in with my grandparents, because as generous as their offer to support me during this transition period is, it’s still a massive sacrifice for me as much as them. (Okay, maybe not as much as them, as they’re footing the bill here.) To be completely honest, I’m absolutely shitting myself right now.

My decision to resign wasn’t spur-of-the-moment, but my decision to do it when I did was. Again, a story for another time. But despite my fears and insecurities and absolute utter fucking terror, it feels right. I’m more hopeful about my future now than I have been since I was 25. That’s something, at least.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer currently based in Eastern North Carolina. His work has appeared at Salon, HuffPost UK, The Independent, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @skylarjordan

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#ThatAwkwardMoment when you get your big break, then leave the country

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Dreams do come true. In case you missed it, I published my first piece at The Advocate last week. When I was in high school, I used to sneak and read it at Barnes and Noble every time I visited my parents in Ohio. Never in a million years did I think I would have a byline on their site. To be honest, it’s still pretty surreal, but it feels fucking great.

It’s so funny, because when I started blogging again last month, I spent quite a bit of time lamenting the fact that I kept pitching and not hearing back. And then, one drunken election night, I tweet to the managing editor that I have a pitch, and she says to e-mail it over. Bam, there you go, first piece. I suppose this is evidence that if you just whinge and moan enough, the universe finally gets tired of hearing your bullshit and throws you a bone?

Haha, I kid. Look, I’m over the moon thrilled to have been allowed to write for The Advocate. It’s exactly the confidence boost I needed. In fact, I just finished another piece tonight that I’ve pitched to another high-profile site. I’ve got a couple more that I’m going to be working on in the coming days. I’m a guest lecturer at Triton College on Wednesday, where I’ll be talking about gender norms in same-sex relationships. I’m very excited for that.

But perhaps the most exciting thing happening to me this week is that I’m returning to my beloved London. I fly out on Friday, and I’m there for 8 glorious nights. What am I going to do? Not go to that Starbucks between Embankment and Charing Cross to see if Danny, the cute barista, still works there. Nope. That’s not happening.

Okay it might. It’s on my way to the National Portrait Gallery and it’s going to be chilly so I will need a coffee. Don’t judge me.

Honestly I’ve no idea what I’m going to do whilst back in the motherland. My mate Nick is making a Thanksgiving feast on Thursday, which coincidentally is the same day I’ve applied to be in the Question Time audience. So that’s one day booked. As for the other seven? No clue. I plan on doing some writing; I know a lovely coffeehouse in South Kensington I may squat at, but beyond that…?

I know, I know, I should try to take some meetings. And I’m going to put word out on Twitter that I’m there, and if any journalists or, more importantly, editors want to meet up for a coffee or a drink, I’m game. But I don’t want to just start tweeting at writers who follow me and asking them out to brunch. That seems intimidating, completely unprofessional, and a bit bonkers. “Hi, perfect stranger who sometimes reads my work, would you like to meet up with a totally-not-a-serial-killer stranger from the internet?”

Not a good look.

So we’ll see. Frankly, I’m not established enough yet to even have the clout to ask for and expect to receive a meeting with the likes of (NAMES REDACTED FOR FUTURE CAREER PROSPECTS). That’s why I’m not putting a lot of pressure on myself to network and find a job and make my dreams come true overnight. I’m a small fish going to a very, very big pond, and I’m going to just keep a low profile, look at some paintings of dead kings, and get drunk at a gay pub. Maybe make out with that guy in Kensington Gardens again. That was hot. There’s also an economist I’m looking forward to seeing again. Fingers crossed.

I don’t want to make it seem like I’m not super excited, because I am, or that my ambition is waning, because clearly it isn’t. But there’s some freedom in letting go. As I wrote about last month, the constant pressure to produce, perform, and skyrocket to the top took the joy out of writing. I’m rediscovering why I love this medium, especially online commentary and analysis, and so I’m just taking it day by day. I’m being proactive where I can, but otherwise, I’m enjoying living the life of a burgeoning pundit who just published his first piece at a major news outlet.

The only three things I do know with any certainty is that when I land, I’m going to be exhausted, but empowered by the adrenaline rush I always get when I’m back on British soil. I know that I’m about to see how the British interpret one of America’s most sacred traditions, Thanksgiving dinner. And I know that when it’s time to leave, I’ll once again bawl like a baby.

Everything else is being left up to chance. But considering how well this month has gone so far, I’m optimistic. Who knows? Maybe I won’t get a column with GayTimes, but maybe my quest for prince charming, or even better, the perfect pint, will come to an end.

I’m baaaaaaack (and clearly have no pithy title)

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So you’re probably wondering where I’ve been. That’s understandable. Ever since last winter, this blog has experienced a silence so deafening even Madame Kovarian would squirm.

Well, I’ve been busy. I started a new day job which, though still in mortgages, offers me less stress and more flexibility than ever did my last. I’ve been to Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee to see family, friends, and even a couple enemies. I got a free jeep. I’ve lost 15 pounds. I’ve planned a trip to London, and will be spending Thanksgiving in Britain, the irony of which is not lost on me. Indeed, it’s irony which compelled me to choose that date.

But perhaps the biggest change in my life has been that the Columnist, a wonderful up-and-coming site I had the privilege of contributing to, has shut down. I’ve spent the last few weeks regrouping. I wasn’t the most active contributor, but it was through the Columnist that I’ve seen some of my biggest successes to date.

Okay, those pieces were actually my only successes to date. Since we last spoke I’ve pitched, or attempted to pitch, to sites as varied as PinkNews, CNN, and the Advocate, all of which proved fruitless. I had writers and friends, all of whom I admire, encouraging me along, and attended the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association’s conference in August, which was a decent networking event and redoubled my resolve to make this career happen. But it also made me realise that I’ve got much further to go than I thought, not just to get to where I want, but to have the capability of getting there.

When you pitch, and pitch, and pitch, and hear nothing back, not even a rejection, it’s not just incredibly frustrating, but incredibly demoralising. David Bell, Molly McCaffrey, and the WKU Creative Writing department told me as much as a young 21 year old aspiring writer, and they also told me that I’d pitch a thousand times before anything came of it. But what they couldn’t prepare me-or any aspiring writer-for is actually coping with the rejection and dejection. It fucking sucks. Every time I pitched to a magazine or website, only to see another piece over the same topic published a week later, I questioned my own ability, my own talent, and my own voice.

Maybe it was time to give up the ghost.

It was with that in mind that I returned home a couple weeks ago. One of my close friends from university was getting married, and her wedding became something of a sorority-plus-Skylar reunion. Seeing her so deeply in love, as well as seeing a couple other old friends with their loving spouses, content in their lives, made me long for whatever it was they had. It’s no secret that I’ve got some fucked up Disney fantasies, where Prince Charming sweeps me off my feet and we live happily ever after in Chelmsford or Chiswick or Croydon, playing out a queer version of Keeping Up Appearances, with me starring as a sort of Guyacinth Bucket. We’d adopt a couple kids, or have a couple on the NHS, whichever was simpler and cheaper and pissed off Roger Helmer more, and he’d work in the City by day as I baked pies and organised fêtes for little Gareth’s primary school.

Of course that would involve me actually finding a British man, which probably requires me being in Britain, which I’m not. I’m in Chicago. But I could easily adapt that fantasy to meet North American specifications. Instead of Chelmsford or Chiswick or Croydon, it could be Wilmette, Winnetka, or Warrenville. Instead of little Gareth, we could have little Gavin, and instead of playing proper football, he could play American football. (No. I have to draw a line somewhere.) Life could be just as idyllic, if not as ideal.

The point is, I could start living for today, instead of dreaming for tomorrow. I could begin living in Chicago, instead of existing in Chicago. So for about a week after coming home, I embraced all things American. I ate a lot of pumpkin shit, cos I’m white and it’s fall. I listened to a lot of country music, cos I’m white and it’s fall. I started driving my jeep to work, cos, well, you get the picture.

I didn’t write. I didn’t tweet. I actually skipped an episode of Question Time, and only felt slightly guilty. It was liberating. Maybe I could be okay with this. Maybe I could be an assistant for the rest of my life, working in this office with good people. Maybe I’d meet a nice Chicago boy and settle down on some Midwestern Wisteria Lane, and live out an all-American existence. Maybe contentment was all I could, and even should, hope for.

It felt good, not living under the constant pressure to produce, to write, to pitch, to be published.

It felt good to not constantly be thinking about life in London, but living life in Chicago.

It also felt disconcerting. My entire adult life has been dedicated to moving to Britain, and the past year has been dedicated to being a writer. Giving that up felt like, in some way, giving up a big part of my identity. I’m that Anglophile kid who, in the words of my best friends, “loves England and will tell you about it.” I’ve made Britain part of my character, and while giving that up temporarily was relieving, it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel authentic.

That’s been a massive part of the problem over the past year. I haven’t felt authentic. The stiff analyses I’ve tried offering on the Columnist and on my Twitter feed have been cogent, if not always fresh, but they’ve also been stuffy, and to some degree derivative. They’ve been stiff, formal, and a bit pompous, all of which I’m not.

And my problem has been just that. I’ve been pretending to be someone other than who I am. I’m sick of pretending that I’m a columnist, and not just a boy with a blog. I’m sick of pretending that I’m some uptight intellectual. I’m sick of pretending that I don’t live in Chicago, which while I’ve never done in my writing, I’ve definitely done in my head. I’m sick of pretending that things aren’t shitty, but I’m also sick of pretending things aren’t better than they were.

And that’s where I’ve been. That’s where I’m at. Like last year, when I came back to blogging, writing, tweeting, and pitching, I’m at another pivotal moment in my development as a writer. See, this used to be fun, but at some point in the last few months, writing became more of a chore. And every time I was attacked for expressing an intersectional opinion, or threatened with a lawsuit for calling out homophobia, it became less fun and more terrifying. Every time I pitched and heard nothing back, or had a hit piece written about me, it became less fun and more annoying. Every time I scrapped an entire piece because I felt it wasn’t good enough to go anywhere, it became less fun and more disheartening.

I want writing to be fun again. I can say that because it’s not my job. Writing doesn’t pay my bills. Maybe one day it will, but right now it doesn’t. It shouldn’t bring me more stress, it should be a way to de-stress.

So that’s where I am, and that’s how I’m treating it. I’m not going to beat myself up, or let others beat me up, over writing anymore. I’m going to have fun. I’m going to be me. I’m going to say shit that pisses people off and give zero fucks while I do it. I’m going to blog, and not pitch, and if people want to read this little site, fine. If they don’t, whelp, I’ve always got mortgages.

I’m going to keep looking at ways to move to the UK. I’m going to keep thinking about graduate school. But I’m also going to live life in Chicago. I’m going to eat deep dish pizza. I’m going to cheer for the Blackhawks (though not their racist mascot). I’m going to start dating again, not hold off for the perfect British man. He may not exist. Or he may be living in Lincoln Park. Who the fuck knows?

Point is, I’m done putting pressure on myself. I’m done trying to find a niche. I’m done with the way I’ve been doing this. I’m going to start blogging. I don’t know what about. Whatever tickles my fancy. And I’m going to update as often or as little as I like. Because this needs to be fun. This needs to be irreverent. This needs to be enjoyable. This needs to be about me.

I’m coming back. Watch this space.